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UNCOOPERATIVE GOVERNANCE

Court gives Eastern Cape municipality green light to sue former municipal manager for R7.5m

Court gives Eastern Cape municipality green light to sue former municipal manager for R7.5m
From left: Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Lulama Zenzile) | Former Knysna municipal manager Dr Sithembele Vatala. (Photo: Supplied) MC-Vatala-Estelle

The Makhanda High Court has given the Emalahleni municipality the go-ahead to sue the former Knysna municipal manager Dr Sitembele Wiseman Vatala for R7.5m. It is alleged that he failed to settle a civil suit against the municipality timeously.

Former Knysna municipal manager Sithembele Wiseman Vatala lost his attempt to stop another municipality that had employed him from suing him for R7.5-million.

The Emalahleni Local Municipality has sued Vatala for R7.5-million, claiming that his negligence has caused it to suffer damages of this amount.

It is alleged that Vatala, who was the municipal manager there between 2013 and 2019, failed to settle a lawsuit by Xolelwa Mangayi, who suffered an electric shock at a municipal substation. She had sued for R3-million and he was advised that the municipality should pay the damages, but failed to do so. This resulted in a judgment in the matter awarding her R10.5-million.

Vatala raised an exception to the lawsuit.

His legal team argued that the municipality did not specify the period in which payment should be made when its attorneys presented Vatala with a settlement proposal of R3,000,000 for Mangayi’s claim. The particulars of the claim also did not disclose a cause of action, in that the municipality did not specify when the court order was made in the case between it and Mangayi, Vatala’s lawyers argued.

Jay Kruuse, from the Public Service Accountability Monitor, said this was the first time, as far as he knew, that a municipality had sued a municipal manager for breaching the statutory obligation to prevent fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

“Such action, if successful, would be a powerful mechanism to address accountability failings where municipal managers, other senior officials and elected representatives act negligently and recklessly, resulting in great cost exposure. So often such matters inevitably impact communities’ constitutional rights.

“Hopefully, the matter does not conclude with a settlement agreement, and a judgment follows that could potentially be a valuable precedent to improve good governance and accountability,” Kruuse said.

In her ruling, Acting Judge Nolubabalo Cengani-Mbakaza said as a municipal manager, Vatala was bound by the law not to incur unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

“In my considered view, the issue of dates is a minor obscurity that can be cleared up by way of further particulars. I find that the particulars of the claim contain a clear and concise statement of the material facts upon which the municipality relies for its claim,” Cengani-Mbakaza said.

She ruled that the municipality could proceed with its claim.

After Emalahleni, Vatala moved to the Knysna Municipality, from which he resigned after being on suspension for more than a year.

He was charged with fraud involving municipal buildings valued at R64-million in 2023, but the case was struck from the roll in 2024. The matter involved a failure to transfer properties between Knysna and Garden Route District Municipality.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

In 2022, Vatala was appointed as the municipal manager of the Western Cape’s Central Karoo District Municipality. He was suspended and then fired by then mayor Gayton McKenzie for tender irregularities involving R10-million for the construction of toilets. The allegations levelled against him have been disputed. DM

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