Exclusive: Man who helped free Mandela and bring about end of apartheid reveals his untold story at Saffron Screen

PUBLISHED: 11:49 13 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:49 13 March 2014

Jean-Yves Ollivier.

Jean-Yves Ollivier.


The great Nelson Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

So it is fitting that the man who helped mastermind the inspirational leader’s release from prison had a message for the next generation.

Speaking at Saffron Screen on Sunday night, he laid down the gauntlet to young people. Young people who, in Jean-Yves Ollivier’s words, are content to express opinions and beliefs through a digital platform. “That is not enough,” he said.

“Our young generation, they send a tweet and believe they have done their duty by expressing what they think through a computer.

“But you should not be satisfied only by expressing an opinion, you have to act on what you believe. Do something.”

The 69-year-old is the protagonist in Plot for Peace, a documentary that details the untold story of a ‘mysterious Frenchman’, as Ollivier is dubbed, in the ending of apartheid.

A businessman who used his negotiating skills to bring about a dialogue of understanding between South Africa and its neighbours.

It was an approach, Ollivier admits, he had no idea whether or not would work. But he had to try.

The film begins with the Frenchman playing Solitaire. “Laying cards...resembles the world. It’s much like life itself, you don’t play with the cards you’d wish to have but with the hand you’re dealt,” he says.

“It is about creating order from chaos”. A commodities trader by title, Ollivier used his contacts to alter the course of peace talks across Africa.

There were bumps in the Long Road to Freedom but, in September 1987, Ollivier conceived and organised the exchange of a vast number of political prisoners, including South African Special Forces captain Wynand Du Toit.

Asked by an audience member why he set out to bring peace to the region, Ollivier replied: “Because when you see something terrible is happening and you feel you might be able to do something, you don’t think about the consequences or motivation.

“You just do it because you are a human being.

“It’s like if you witness a car accident. You don’t just drive past, it is instinct to stop and help.”

A year after negotiating the release of 185 prisoners, Ollivier was instrumental in the signing of the Brazzaville Accord.

An agreement which saw Cuban and South African troops withdraw from Angola and the granting of independence to Namibia.

Nine months on, PW Botha resigned as President of South Africa and, on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years behind bars.

“It was an extraordinary feeling, especially considering all the years spent working on it,” Ollivier said.

“At the beginning the chance of success was totally nil. Everything could have gone wrong, and there were terrible setbacks.

“There was a risk the prisoner exchange might not have gone through, but it did and here we are today.”

Referring to the card analogy, he said: “It felt like I had won the game.”

At the time of his release, Mandela was unaware of Ollivier’s secret involvement. But it did not take long for South Africa’s first black president to find out the whole story – and, in turn, make Ollivier the Grand Officer of the Order of Good Hope in recognition.

Ollivier’s overriding message was simple. “If you are on your own you can play a role and do something.

“One person can make a difference,” he said.

“We are talking about 20 years ago. Behind those 20 years were another hundred years of issues.

“Mandela had a dream. He died before seeing the dream fully accomplished and that is the message here. I’m saying to you, ‘help me realise this dream’. Help me continue to fight for humanity.”

Or, to quote Mandela’s own words: “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Plot for Peace is officially released in cinemas tomorrow (Friday). It will also be available to download via iTunes or Amazon on March 24.

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