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Jean-Yves Ollivier: Mixing business and peace

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How do you get sworn enemies to talk to each other? "By being quiet about it," French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier would say.

What does a businessman know of brokering peace in one of the most complex, intricate, and volatile regions of the world? Well, they seem to know about delivering results. That's what 'Plot for peace', the upcoming documentary produced by two-time Emmy documentary film-maker Mandy Jacobson, reveals through the story of Jean-Yves Ollivier, a quiet helper of the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

Most bilateral and multilateral officials tasked to deal with conflict prevention and negotiation in various regions of the world, and particularly in Africa, would agree that the earlier the intervention in a mediation process, the better your chance of success. Past a certain level of tension--when all channels of communication between the conflicting parties have been broken--it is pretty much a lost cause.

For communication to resume, political leaders need a private space that gives them room for honesty and flexibility. Away from the public eye, they are less pressed to stick to one, inflexible party-line on sensitive topics. Few diplomats, bureaucrats, or politicians are able to create such spaces for discussion. Jean-Yves Ollivier has been able to create such spaces.

That is because access to and trust from all parties cannot be achieved through diplomacy, bureaucracy, or politics. It is reached through personal relationship and friendship.

Friendship between a white, western business man and African leaders tends to look suspicious in the public eye. Jean-Yves Ollivier arrived in Southern Africa as a businessman--a position that inevitable led him to meet political leaders in the region. He developed genuine friendships with them as a free, uncensored, neutral agent, interested in results rather than political allegiances.

These long-term friendships and the trust they implied, allowed Jean-Yves Ollivier to bring together sworn enemies to discuss the possibility of breakthrough a deadlock. Discussions which culminated in the swapping of prisoners between Angolans and South Africans on the tarmac of Maputo's airport in September 1987. The prisoner swap opened the way to further talks and, eventually, the liberation of Nelson Mandela in 1990.

Along with personal relationships, secrecy was the other factor to Jean-Yves Ollivier's success as a de-facto peace broker. His involvement stayed an absolute secret until the late 1990s. It is being brought to light fully in an upcoming documentary produced by two-time Emmy award winner Mandy Jacobson.

After more than three decades of work and relationship-building in the region, the French businessman may have more lessons for us to learn. Jean-Yves Ollivier regularly comments on key economic, social, and political dynamics in the Southern African region on his blog:  http://jeanyvesollivier.com


Anna Maltreck has worked in and on Africa for 7 years. She regularly interacts with journalists and intellectuals in Souther AFrica and East Africa.

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Jean-Yves Ollivier: Mixing business and peace


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