The mysterious Monsieur Jacques: Behind the scenes of apartheid, French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier was a shadowy broker for peace

As a new film explores his extraordinary influence in Africa, Francesca Steele meets an unlikely arbitrator

On an airstrip in Mozambique in September 1987, a genial Frenchman stood looking on from the sidelines as a prisoner exchange took place between several African nations more commonly seen at loggerheads than in successful negotiation.

The event involved the release of Du Toit, a high-profile South African officer who had been captured during a controversial operation in Angola two years before, as well as 133 Angolan soldiers and two anti-apartheid activists. It had taken seven months of difficult and often dangerous talks between South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and several other nations to reach this point. It was also, some observers later remarked, a key moment in the events and peace talks leading up to the release of Nelson Mandela and the dissolution of apartheid.

The mysterious Frenchman in question was Jean-Yves Ollivier, a key player in these negotiations and yet a man with no official political function whatsoever. Known to the South African secret service as "Monsieur Jacques", Ollivier, a successful commodities trader with an extensive contacts book including everyone from the Mitterrand family and Margaret Thatcher to several African presidents, had fashioned himself into a covert political arbitrator, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of his own money flying back and forth between different nations, arranging unofficial parleys between leaders and, ultimately, securing the prisoner exchange on that hot September day in Maputo. Later, Ollivier would go on to become the only foreigner ever decorated both by the apartheid regime and then again under Nelson Mandela. But why had he got involved in the first place?

In the flesh, dressed in slacks a tad too short with eccentric green socks peeking out from underneath, Ollivier, who will be 70 years old later this year, is laid-back and equipped with an easy charm. He merrily recalls dangerous desert missions under the burning African sun from the comfort of his armchair at a lavish Mayfair hotel in rainy London. He is spending some time here to promote the documentary Plot for Peace, a film made by the African Oral History Archive, a not-for-profit foundation set up to safeguard African story-telling.

Covert political arbitrator: Ollivier in 'Plot for Peace' Covert political arbitrator: Ollivier in 'Plot for Peace'
It was when Mandy Jacobson, Plot for Peace's producer and director, was rummaging through the organisation's video footage and photo archives that she came across various references to the mysterious "Monsieur Jacques", prompting her to track down Ollivier and persuade him to participate in a film. "Initially, he was reluctant," says Jacobson. "I think he had spent so long under the radar it was difficult to consider coming up above the parapet." Through the organisation's contacts, Jacobson also managed to persuade an illustrious line-up of former politicians and key figures to be interviewed, including Winnie Mandela, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, and the former President of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano.

Plot for Peace is a serious, complex and rather extraordinary film, featuring grainy archived footage of the apartheid regime interspersed with original interviews, and a voiceover from Ollivier himself, who is presented with almost hesitant gravitas, as a shadowy figure playing cards alone in a darkened room. Several of the interviewees question Ollivier's motivation. "What he was looking for I'm not sure, because he never asked for money," says General Neels van Tonder, one-time head of South African Military Intelligence. Jacinto Veloso, a former Mozambique Security Minister, strongly implies that Ollivier hoped to gain indirectly from improved business conditions and contacts. And Odile Biyidi, president of Survie, a non-government organisation, insists that Ollivier was part of the French Secret Service.

Captain Wynand du Toit escorted by Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha on his release in 1987 (Plot for Peace) Captain Wynand du Toit escorted by Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha on his release in 1987 (Plot for Peace)
Most of these suggestions seem plausible, in particular the last one, but Ollivier himself blithely dismisses them all. He was not a spy, he insists, and nor was he driven by an expectation of financial return, though he admits begrudgingly that a peaceful Africa – and a South Africa no longer under the trade sanctions of the 1980s – was certainly better for business. "Do you need a reason to stop when you are driving a car along the road and there is an accident ahead and you know that there are some people wounded?" he asks me. "Of course not. You stop your car. I felt that I had the means to help and that I had to do something. It was my duty as a human being."

Read more: Plot For Peace, film review

The car crash that Ollivier feared was an ousting of the white South African community, a scenario that he wished to avoid for reasons personal as well as financial. Born in French Algeria – a "pied-noir" – he had been a teenager during the revolution, siding squarely with those who wanted to remain French. When Algeria became independent in 1962, Ollivier's family was forced out of the country. He rebelled and was incarcerated in Paris for five months, where he was "roughed up" by the French police and where he longed for the African continent that he had grown up in.

The experience had a profound effect. When in 1981, Ollivier went to South Africa on business, he foresaw a similar fate for this nation currently embroiled in racially motivated violence and widespread poverty. "I will never forget it," he says. "I put my first foot on the soil and immediately realised how wrong it was. I wanted to help apartheid die in peace."

The prisoner exchange at Maputo airport in 1987 (Plot for Peace) The prisoner exchange at Maputo airport in 1987 (Plot for Peace)
What would have happened if he had not tried to help? "Look, apartheid was an insult to humanity. It was going to die anyway." But would that have happened less peacefully, without his own contribution? A Pinteresque pause. "Yes."

Ollivier is given to dramatic silences. A natural storyteller, he also utilises strategic displays of intimacy. "I'm going to tell you a little secret," he says in hushed tones, leaning in. "I was 13 when General de Gaulle came to Algeria, and I watched him say: 'This is your country, it will remain French and you can stay here.' We felt saved. And then he reneged on his words. I promised myself that I would never do that."

He has certainly found trustworthiness to be a valuable commodity. It was Ollivier's reliable track record as a businessman, along with incomparable networking abilities and friends in high places, that enabled him to broker the prisoner exchange, in which deals were cemented not with documents but with handshakes. "I always went along to meet a new contact accompanied by someone who already knew and trusted me," he explains. "That way, if someone didn't know quite who I was, they could depend on the faith they had in that person standing next to me."

Here, after all, was a continent beset by mistrust. Official deals often had little impact and were regarded with derision; along with trying to combat the African National Congress, which it viewed as a terrorist organisation, the South African government was also trying desperately to curb Soviet expansion in places such as Angola, where Cuban troops were stationed. The Reagan administration had adopted a heavily criticised, less hostile approach to South Africa known as "constructive engagement", to ward off Marxist revolutionaries, but the talks were still largely bilateral.

Jean-Yves Ollivier with Winnie Mandela (Plot for Peace) Jean-Yves Ollivier with Winnie Mandela (Plot for Peace)
The success of the prisoner exchange buoyed confidence between nations. Ollivier and his good friend Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of Francois Mitterrand, persuaded representatives from South Africa, Mozambique and Angola to attend informal talks in the Kalahari desert, where they put together the basis for the 1988 Brazzaville Protocol, an agreement that mandated the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and the independence of South Africa-occupied Namibia. Soon after, apartheid hardliner PW Botha resigned as President of South Africa.

"I'll tell you a little something," whispers Ollivier. "I don't think it would have been possible without US policy to achieve Brazzaville. But at the same time, I don't think that official policy would have worked without trust between the different parties. And I was instrumental in that."

Is Ollivier overstating his claim? Stephen Smith, the scriptwriter and historical consultant on Plot for Peace and a former Africa editor at Le Monde, does not think so, although he does not necessarily approve of Ollivier's modus operandi either. "Why have secret services if, when it comes to the crunch, you use businessmen... to approach adversaries?" Smith says. "We all know how powerful interpreters are. They tweak messages the way they want and are difficult, if not impossible, to control. I hope the film makes this as clear as the advantages of bypassing institutionalised channels." The film's producers say they chose Smith precisely because of his reservations about the clandestine nature of Ollivier's involvement, to better substantiate its claims.

Neither seen nor heard: Jean-Yves Ollivier with Winnie Mandela recently (Plot for Peace) Neither seen nor heard: Jean-Yves Ollivier with Winnie Mandela recently (Plot for Peace)
Either way, it has all worked out rather well for Ollivier. He became great friends with Winnie Mandela, and met the late Nelson Mandela on several occasions ("He left this planet sadly without seeing his dream fully realised," Ollivier tells me). He is also clearly still a man of substantial means, with six houses, two of which are in South Africa. He insists that the only money he was ever given during his political dealings was about £50,000 by the South Africa government "to cover some expenses".

Along with the documentary, Ollivier has a book out now in France – Ni Vu, Ni Connu – De Chirac et Foccart à Mandela. Ma vie de négociant en politique ("Neither Seen, Nor Heard – My Life as a political broker from Chirac and Foccart to Mandela"), as well as a website on which he blogs extensively. Why the sudden transformation from voluntary anonymity to mass exposure? It seems odd when discretion was once his main currency. The film's producers say that he has simply "embraced" talking about his contribution to history.

Still, one can't help but feel that "Monsieur Jacques" still has a trick or two up his sleeve – another business venture perhaps (he still runs businesses investing in infrastructure projects around the world) or a covert political operation of some kind. It is a sense of mystery that he seems keen to bolster as he flits coolly between candor and elusiveness.

What job do his official papers say he does now then? "Ah, well, my passport says I am retired," he says, winking mischievously. "But that's a lie."

'Plot for Peace' is released in UK cinemas today

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower