A documentary titled Plot for Peace has revealed a new broker in the historic Brazzaville Accord, writes Peter Fabricius.
Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. This maxim comes to mind when observing the flurry of publicity around the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Brazzaville Accord in December 1988.
This agreement, signed by the apartheid South African government, Angola and Cuba, with the US and Russia in close attendance, essentially secured the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola in exchange for South Africa also withdrawing its troops from Angola and granting independence to Namibia.
The anniversary celebration was postponed from December until two weeks ago because of the death of Nelson Mandela. President Jacob Zuma travelled to the Republic of Congo for the event as did many of the individuals involved in the negotiations that led to the accord.
There Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso handed over national medals to several of them, including, in his absence, then foreign minister Pik Botha.
Historians have hitherto given US President Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Chet Crocker much of the credit for brokering that historic deal. But now a new broker has come to light, one Jean-Yves Ollivier, a businessman born into Algeria’s white community, who fled at independence in 1962.
A documentary titled Plot for Peace, produced by the African Oral History Archive, presents Ollivier as the real hero behind the Brazzaville Accord that helped pave the way to South Africa’s own negotiations and the end of apartheid.
He used his excellent “address book” as he calls it, the many high-level political and economic contacts he had acquired as a commodity broker in Africa, and his pragmatic approach as a businessman, to establish the links across the yawning ideological divides that were necessary to get entrenched enemies talking and eventually making peace.
Strangely, Ollivier and certainly his role in these historic events, have not been widely known before. Yet some of the leaders of the time such as former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano (who was then foreign minister) give him substantial credit, in the documentary.
And it is precisely the aim of the African Oral History Archive to shatter conventional views and present original – and therefore sometimes novel perspectives – on history.
The archive is owned by South African entrepreneur and industrialist Ivor Ichikowitz, a sometimes controversial figure because of his close ties to the ANC. The archive has filmed hundreds of hours of interviews with key figures in African history to provide first-hand accounts from the decision-makers of what happened – “rather than having to rely on some university professor” as one of Ichikowitz’s aides put it.
Under the direction of film-maker Mandy Jacobson, the archive has now begun shaping all this material into a series of documentaries. Plot for Peace is the first and others, such as profiles of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Botha and All for One, One for All, a tribute to the Frontline States, are to follow.
From remarks made by Ichikowitz in Sandton last week, where Botha was given Sassou-Nguesso’s award, it is clear that the documentaries being produced by the archive are also intended to highlight the key parts played by Africans in their own recent history – but often attributed instead to foreigners.
Sassou-Nguesso’s role and that of Algerian Ollivier, as well as Botha’s more familiar role as a maverick in the apartheid government who had the vision and courage to see the need for change, figured prominently in his speech. Crocker was not mentioned, although the Plot for Peace documentary gives him his say.
Despite their intention to bypass the academics and let the decision-makers speak for themselves, one suspects that the producers of this documentary will not entirely escape the scrutiny of historians.
Who will inevitably ask if they have really discovered critical new historical evidence – or are engaged in historical revisionism designed to provide African solutions for African problems, retrospectively.
Plot for Peace will soon premiere in South Africa so the debate could be about to begin.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.