Volker Wagner wanted to do more than donate the money he made from his successful printing business. Driven by his evangelical Christian faith, the Vancouver entrepreneur went far beyond typical charity. With partners, donors and his own cash, he raised $1-million to buy a dilapidated, remote old mining town in Swaziland.
The dream was to “restore a town, transform a nation.” Swaziland is a tiny, impoverished, AIDS-ravaged country surrounded on three sides by South Africa. Yet Mr. Wagner imagined potential in the town of Bulembu, a place where money – and love – could create businesses that would flourish, generating enough cash by 2020 to educate and house 2,000 orphans.
Now Mr. Wagner’s plans have been yanked from his hands, after five years of work and $10-million raised mostly from Canadian donors. The clash of personalities, power and world views took place this past spring, with the results becoming known in Canada only gradually, in recent weeks.
The story of Bulembu illustrates the divide between countries such as Canada and Swaziland, places such as Vancouver and Bulembu, and the difficulty of reconciling the well-intended ambitions of outsiders with the reality of life on the ground. Swaziland has the world’s highest AIDS rate, a failing economy where more than two-thirds of people live on less than $1.25 a day, and a government presided over by an absolute monarch, King Mswati III.
The discord at Bulembu was over priorities. The Swazi leadership in Bulembu wanted to take care of as many orphans as soon as possible. The more conservative Canadians insisted on a longer-term strategy of careful, slow growth ending in a self-sustaining town by 2020.
It turned into a battle for control between Andrew le Roux, a white Swazi lawyer who ran the show and whose family has a long history in the country, and Mr. Wagner, whose Bulembu International charity is based in Vancouver. Mr. le Roux won. Mr. Wagner – who declined to be interviewed for this story – announced that Bulembu International had cut off the bulk of funding on May 5, citing “irreconcilable differences.”
Mr. le Roux, in a telephone interview, described the differences as “subtle,” and spoke of the need for greater local control. Mr. le Roux is executive director of Bulembu Ministries Swaziland, which owns title to the town and took money and guidance from Mr. Wagner.
“We are going to bring a Swazi flavour to it,” said Mr. le Roux, whose grandfather was deputy president of the country’s Senate. Another relative was minister of finance in the 1980s.
“As Swazis, in the immediate future, there can’t be an emphasis on business at the expense of child care,” Mr. le Roux said. “The need is huge.”
A division of goals
Bulembu, located in the lush rolling hills of the Highveld, surrounded by protected parks, was built in the 1930s by a British firm that mined asbestos. In 2001, the town was shuttered but in the abandoned buildings – houses, schools, a hospital – there was a skeleton for a future.
It is today home to about 1,800 people and supports 300 orphans.
Mr. Wagner, now 53, first connected with Swaziland in the early 2000s. He raised $500,000 for an eye-surgery clinic for cataract surgery that saved people from preventable blindness. He chose Swaziland – home to just one million people – with the ambition of saving the sight of a entire nation.
On meeting the king, he was asked to create jobs, which led to, in 2006, the Bulembu project. By last year its businesses – a sawmill, a bakery and a honey bee apiary among them – produced revenue of $3-million annually and a $250,000 profit.
Mr. Wagner poured himself into Bulembu, working 60 hours a week, visiting six times a year. Toiling for free, his personal income came from investments. When he was young, immigrating at 16 from Germany to Vancouver with his family, he jumped into business and took the helm of his father’s printing company in the early 1980s. Aggressive expansion led to near-bankruptcy and thereafter he became involved in evangelical Christian causes.
In his only interview about Bulembu, last September with The Globe, Mr. Wagner said it was “personal joy” that drove him. “What motivates me, it is complex riddles, conquering the impossible.”
His energy drew more support for the idea of a self-sustaining island of prosperity. Several million dollars flowed to the Bulembu project for the past two summers, from shows and events in British Columbia that starred the Canadian Tenors. The Canadian International Development Agency put in $550,000 last fall and Vancouver billionaire Jimmy Pattison, the fifth-richest man in the country, donated $1.5-million for infrastructure.
Meanwhile, a confrontation was growing between how quickly such resources should be thrown at the most pressing human problems, as opposed to building the sustainable settlement envisioned by Canadian donors.
Such divisions, in general, are not unusual, said Suwanda Sugunasiri, a professor at University of Toronto’s Trinity College, whose specialties include international development.
“I’m not surprised at the arrogance of Western ‘experts’ who seem to know it all, and certainly ‘better’ than the locals,” said Prof. Sugunasiri by e-mail. “For the last half century or more, the West has sought to impose its economic models, with disastrous results.”
One Canadian who spent a “crazy four months” at Bulembu late last year and early this year, working with the community’s health network, described Mr. le Roux as a leader who made decisions, including firing staffers, on what appeared driven by “gut” feeling.
Mr. le Roux said Bulembu is a “very complex” place to run, located in a difficult, disease-ridden country and a local milieu that is “financially constrained, multi-denominational, multicultural, faith-based and not-for-profit.”
“Sometimes,” he said in an e-mail, “this might require a leadership style that some don’t understand or appreciate.”
In April, the conflict reached a crisis when Mr. Wagner pushed to fire Mr. le Roux. The board of directors of Bulembu Ministries backed Mr. le Roux.
The end, when it came, was in the form of a “transition statement” from Mr. Wagner’s Bulembu International, posted online, saying there were questions about “use of authority, and need for transparency, dignity and respect.”
But even with the end of Canadian participation in Bulembu’s formal management, Canadians who stood behind the project don’t feel it was a complete loss. John Nicola, who runs a wealth management company in Vancouver, continues to directly support about a dozen orphans in the town.
“I have no regrets,” said Mr. Nicola, although he says that, as a businessman, he questioned the decisions made in Bulembu.
“Sometimes what you have to do is learn how to say no to helping somebody in order to make sure you can help the people you’ve already made a commitment to – and make sure you are able to be strong enough over the long-term to ensure that you actually have a legacy.”
Those who worked closely with Mr. Wagner are still reeling. Scott Campbell answered questions on Mr. Wagner’s behalf.
“It’s still sinking in,” said Mr. Campbell, who has returned to Vancouver to work for a local Christian organization.
“Part of the unravelling of the situation is because we, from day one, ensured the town was led by a Swazi board,” Mr. Campbell said. “That meant we did not have 100-per-cent control of the town. In this case, what that’s resulted in, the [Bulembu Ministries] board has made decisions that they believe are in the best interest of the town. Unfortunately they’re not in line with what we believe the vision or mandate was from the beginning.”
Mr. Campbell believes that Bulembu could struggle financially with the loss of its Canadian funding partner.
Mr. le Roux says the organization in Swaziland is turning elsewhere for money, adding that being “very Canada-focused” was itself a risk.
“The reality is you can only go to the same pool of donors so many times,” he said. “We’re looking at networks in the U.K. and in the United Sates in particular. And that’s important – not to be totally dependent on anybody. Because that in and of itself is not sustainable.”