Peacemaker network uplifts youth

Colvin Snell, right, and his wife, Colleen, with actor and founder of the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative, Forest Whitaker. Picture: Supplied

American actor and social activist Forest Whitaker recently visited his Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative (WPDI) in Bridgetown and also addressed 120 Grade 8 pupils at Cedar High School in Rocklands.

The WPDI’s Youth Peacemaker Network was launched in Bridgetown three months ago, where 45 young people from the Cape Flats are receiving training in peace initiatives, information technology, and entrepreneurship.

These trainees will in turn become trainers of trainees, as they take their work into the communities they are from.

The 45 youths are from areas most affected by gang violence in Cape Town. They are in the process of educating 360 young people from communities across Cape Town to become social development ambassadors, by learning how to engage with residents to mediate conflicts and foster peace.

The WPDI programme has been successfully rolled out in communities impacted by conflict in other parts of the world, including South Sudan, Uganda, America and Mexico.

On Thursday November 14, Mr Whitaker was joined by Cape Town mayor Dan Plato and French ambassador Aurelien le Chevalier, among others, at the media conference hosted at the WPDI’s community learning centre.

Mr Whitaker said: “I was here on a project a few years ago, and it allowed me to explore the Cape Flats, including Hanover Park, Mitchell’s Plain, Langa, Gugulethu and Hangberg. I was able to get to understand a little bit about it, and what I realised is that it is similar to my roots. Success always works when there is a close co-operation between the community, business and government.

“The young people want to be able to serve the community and make a difference.This is the 17th community learning centre in the world, which has helped to establish 60 or more businesses, and also working towards conflict resolution in schools. Each of them will be a seed for peace. It’s exciting to witness the commitment here.”

WPDI programme director Dr Chance Chagunda said: “Where there is no peace, there cannot be development. We want the Cape Flats to be a place where you want to aspire to be.”

The mission of the WPDI is to empower young people from vulnerable areas to become leaders, peacemakers and entrepreneurs in their communities.

One of the people bringing this about is the WPDI SA’s business and entrepreneurship skills officer, Colvin Snell, resident in Mitchell’s Plain for the past 40 years.

Mr Snell and his younger brother, who were raised by their mom, Brenda, after their dad was stabbed to death by gangsters when Mr Snell was 3, said although there were challenges growing up, his mom and grandparents taught them values and work ethic, constantly reminding them that they could blame their surroundings and become a statistic or they could become the change they want to see.

Mr Snell worked in banking for 21 years, managing clusters of branches at four of the five big banks.

This year also marks the 27th year of community work for Mr Snell, who graduated with an international PhD in Philosophy – Community Development and Upliftment through Divinity College Consortium, Ballsbridge University, Dominica.

“When I applied for this job, I received a telephone call the following morning asking me to an interview with the initiative’s executive director, Caroline Descombris from Paris, who was in Cape Town. Everyone came out of the interviews looking rattled after about 10 minutes.

“Then my turn came, and I felt nerves I never felt as I train students for interviews and business presentations. However, when we started the interview and Caroline started talking so passionately about their vision to bring change, I knew this is not rehearsed but sincere. The interview went on for 30 minutes.

“Thereafter there were Skype interviews and, months later, I was asked if I had a passport as I needed to go to their flagship programme in Uganda to see how things are done in WPDI. All of this and I still didn’t know if I got the job, and here I am being sent to a country programme where they deal with rehabilitating child soldiers Some of those close to me asked me if I am crazy, but my family supported me and said this is what I always wanted to do, this must be God. Off I went, and months later, the first three staff in South Africa were appointed by WPDI.

“I love being part of something that can help someone achieve their dream, and the WPDI does that. Though we just started, I get fuelled with excitement when you see how your training is applied and the success stories already coming forth.

“My WPDI target for businesses that we fund for 2020 are 10 projects and up to 60 business projects for the next five years. The biggest weakness of programmes is the lack of support and aftercare, which WPDI has been doing well all over the globe, and I hope we can replicate the same in South Africa, especially on the Cape Flats.”

Trainer of trainees, Joseph Jacobs, from Beacon Valley, said WPDI was godsend.

“We are from the communities we serve, so the solutions will be internal, not external. WPDI brought out the hope in me. I didn’t think peace could be possible on the Cape Flats. I am very grateful to Mr Whitaker for bringing this programme to the Cape Flats. Peace is the light that will scatter the darkness,” he said.

The five-year programme is in partnership with the BNP Paribas Group South Africa, and consumer finance business RCS, a subsidiary of BNP Paribas.

Mr Snell can be contacted by email at or go to for more information.