This is the story of politics, power, wasted public monies and a municipal employee called Avitha Sunkar. It is also about Knysna, a South African town with an enormous question mark on it.
Sunkar is the Manager of the Budget Office for Knysna Municipality. She is an exception in a local government pirate ship that has found managers and politicians departing like rats from fire.
A CORRUPT TOWN
Despite major negative findings by the Auditor General, Knysna got a clean audit. Municipal Manager Grant Easton and then-Mayor Georlene Wolmarans told a Committee of Parliament that nothing was wrong. But after the next election, Wolmaran’s political party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), instituted charges against Easton. The process cost the public R2-million but they simply accepted his resignation, the selfish option for they are arguably complicit with him.
The hypocrisy was compounded by Wolmarans having become the Speaker for the Council, the guardian of morality.
Consequently, it is no surprise that politicians involved in a nasty propaganda campaign against this author, a citizen activist, were not punished. There is a pattern in that Premier Helen Zille never acted on the information of possible criminal activity by DA candidates, instead, she allowed them to become Councillors. DA Leader Mmusi Maimane’s office has repeatedly refused to respond.
Knysna may not be an island but it is far enough away from the major cities that corruption has been allowed to run unchecked, seemingly encouraged from Cape Town.
There are many pirate voyages to speak of but this plundering concerns Avitha Sunkar who may have been punished for doing the right thing. This would be no surprise in our torn-flag country which is why it makes it even more important for us to highlight stories such as this, our attempt at order in our zeitgeist of disorder.
HER SIMPLE REQUEST SAVED KNYSNA R40-MILLION
Avitha Sunkar did what no one had done before – she publicly asked the Knysna Council to run through the budget line by line. It is rumoured that she had previously requested the same of her bosses in the Administration but had been denied.
But she knew that public money could be saved so she dutifully asked the politicians. It was agreed but only a few would sit with her into the nights that followed. Those included COPE’s Elrick van Aswegen and the DA’s Georlene Wolmarans and Eleonore Spies.
The result was a 2015/2016 BUDGET SAVING OF OVER R40-MILLION. That’s a large amount by any standard but even more so considering the small size of Knysna (pop. 73,000). The breakdown wasn’t advertised to the public but the hiring of consultants apparently suffered most. It’s easy, as a South African, to pessimistically wonder if that is what upset her bosses.
Sunkar, the Finance Department and the politicians involved were not put on a pedestal, an example to be followed each year.
In 2014, when Avitha Sunkar joined the Knysna Municipality, Grant Easton was the CFO and Lauren Waring was the Municipal Manager.
Sunkar questioned the awarding of tenders to a company called Jam Electrical. Her queries have not been detailed publicly but this author had separately exposed the consequent possible fraud to the public: Jam Electrical was receiving the majority of the contracting work from the Electricity Department, as headed by Manon McDonald. McDonald was, at some stage, also involved in the Bid Evaluation Committee (BEC), an important step in the tender process and supply chain management (SCM). Her husband, Theunis McDonald, was the sole member of Jam Electrical CC.
Waring, Easton and Mayor Wolmarans were said to be in the same power faction. None acted against McDonald, not even after the Auditor General stated it as a deviation. Instead, McDonald was allowed to quietly move to George Municipality.
A year after I laid a complaint with the National Council of Provinces (ruling expected this coming May), an informant in the Finance Department told me that Sunkar had objected to the same tenders.
Sunkar was on the BEC committee when she discovered that there had been a calculation error resulting in the wrong supplier being awarded a different tender. Grant Easton refused to act on the information. As a consequence, Sunkar, to protect her integrity, quit the BEC in November 2014. There were only 5 BEC members. It is notable that 4 of them quit.
Chairperson Michael Rhode (also the Director Technical Services) was one of them. He claimed that there was interference in the awarding of tenders, that there was an illegal “vetting committee” in between the BEC and the BAC (Bid Adjudication Committee).
7 months later, in June 2015, the topic reared it’s enlarged, ugly head in Council. Despite that, 2 years later, investigation either hasn’t happen or the results have been hidden from the public.
AVITHA SUNKAR QUESTIONABLY SUSPENDED
For 5 months in 2015, Avitha Sunkar successfully filled the post of Acting Chief Financial Officer (CFO) with approximately 60 staff under her command. However, her relationship with Grant Easton, now ‘promoted’ to Municipal Manager, continued to deteriorate.
Near the end of 2015, two new staff members joined the Finance Department; Nadia Haai as the Chief Accountant; Pariksha Gobrie as the CFO.
An acquaintance of Sunkar’s said that she then took ill and was hospitalised during her 10-day absence. When she returned, she considered the new staff had ganged up with Easton against her – their goal allegedly to force her to leave.
Sunkar laid grievance claims with Easton which he, contrary to regulations, wouldn’t try to sort or process. Instead, disciplinary action was taken against Sunkar.
In April 2016, Sunkar was served with a notice of intention to suspend her, a hearing set for the following day. As there were no details supporting why she was being suspended, she would have been unable to prepare a defence. Considering all that had happened, it is possible that was Easton’s intention. Sunkar’s IMATU union representative consequently requested a postponement. Strangely, the hearing never happened.
Instead, the next day, whilst in a meeting with her staff, she was served her suspension and escorted out of the building by her subordinates. The goal seemed to deny her fair process whilst humiliating her.
The terms of suspension were draconian in that she was forbidden to talk to any employee of the Knysna Municipality. This author doesn’t know her relationships but it preposterously sums up as her being forbidden to even talk to a friend about unrelated matters. That enforced silence has grown to one year…
The charges against her have never been made public but were rumoured to be triviality amounting to intimidation. That was given foundation when, months later, they were withdrawn and replaced with new charges. No reason was given for the withdrawal of the first.
The new charges are alleged to be better-written triviality. They involve her non-attendance at an IMFO conference in Durban for which the Municipality, ironically, is alleged to have deliberately not paid (on time) the accommodation and travel claim. That must be considered intimidation in light of what else happened.
Her approved study leave for a compulsory municipal course (MMC) was illegally converted to normal, annual leave.
Her granted medical leave was illegally converted to normal, unpaid leave.
The Municipality refused to compensate her for added duties for which another staff member was being paid for.
It would seem that they were doing everything in their power to create an intolerable situation to force her to leave-
-but she couldn’t because the shadow would hang over her forever.
Near the middle of 2016, Sunkar appealed to then-Mayor Wolmarans and Speaker Eleanore Spies for their intervention (after the August elections, those two would switch duties). Neither acted even though Sunkar lodged a grievance against Grant Easton.
However, it is common knowledge in local political circles that the DA/Knysna Municipality was divided into two factions, Wolmarans and Easton versus Spies and Councillor Peter Myers. The latter faction would win, respectively becoming Mayor and Deputy Mayor, one of their arguments being that Sunkar be reinstated. That was also strongly supported by COPE Councillor Elrick Van Aswegen.
There is supposed to be a separation of powers, separation of the Administration and the Council. The Administration is responsible for the day-to-day running of the Municipality whilst the Council ensures oversight. Unfortunately, that line has been almost non-existent for a long time.
(Now) Speaker Wolmarans and her returned, long-time friend, Acting Municipal Manager Johnny Douglas, apparently do not want Sunkar to be reinstated although no reason has been given to the public.
In power, Mayor Spies is said to be wobbling, feeling undermined by her deputy who has become the force behind the scenes and in the newspapers regarding serious issues. She looks weak and being caught in a scandal in her first month in office hasn’t helped her image. She’s become indecisive, possibly the deadlock in the DA regarding Avitha Sunkar.
Whilst Spies fails to act decisively, the Finance Department is short-handed and public funds continue to be wasted…
MUNICIPAL MANAGER SUSPENDED
Emphasising wrongness is that whilst Avitha Sunkar sits in limbo, her main detractors (whether right or wrong) have left the service of the Municipality.
CFO Pariksha Gobrie and Municipal Manager Grant Easton resigned.
Gobrie did so in a controversy that made the front page of the local newspaper. She was extremely defamatory towards Sunkar. To date, she too hasn’t been questioned on this, her final action.
Easton was suspended but quit during his disciplinary hearing. The charges against him included:
1. Misled Council in respect of disciplinary proceedings against Manager: Budget Office Avitha Sunkar.
2. Failed to ensure the implementation of the commitments and recommendations from the Auditor General, in particular with regard to the tenders/contracts awarded to local suppliers based on a preferential premium not given to suppliers with the lowest price, causing irregular expenditure of R7,924,285.
3. In respect of Jam Electrical (a company owned by the husband of the Manager of the Electrical Department), an irregular expenditure of R1,133,234.
PAID R800,000 TO STAY AT HOME
That’s approximately how much Avitha Sunkar has been paid whilst sitting at home for one year. It will likely be more once adding allowances and bonuses.
You may think that’s good money for doing nothing (it is) but without being fairly allowed to defend herself, she has been professionally tarred. Her career is likely affected – we live in a world where power values business above all else, and business cares more for secrecy than it does for admitting or correcting wrongdoing.
The same acquaintance I mentioned earlier said that Sunkar sunk into a severe depression which has affected her health.
Instead of being applauded for saving her town lots of money, Avitha Sunkar has been victimised. There is no evidence to the contrary yet a lot to suggest that she has been. That travesty was possibly further fueled by her standing against questionable tenders.
Considering all that has happened, it’s utterly bizarre that Sunkar has not being allowed to defend herself through a suspension hearing. Even more bizarre is that she hasn’t, simply, been reinstated.
The only explanation is that Sunkar is suffering from severe and undue prejudice as a result of political faction power plays, gross incompetence and possible criminality.
Under the Municipal Finance Management Act, the cost of her time at home must be considered as fruitless and wasteful expenditure, something that demands accountability.
Sunkar is not prepared to divulge any information to the public but has indicated that all queries relating to her suspension and disciplinary case be referred to her Labour Lawyer, Desere Barnard, who can be contacted on 044 874 5244.
Nevertheless, Sunkar is rumoured to have initiated legal action against the municipality, to speedily resolve the “unfair” suspension and current disciplinary case. if she is successful, that would result in additional fruitless and wasteful expenditure incurred by the municipality at great cost to the public.
YOU CAN HELP
This blog is my way of fighting back for what I believe to be right.
Support Avitha Sunkhar and good governance by helping her get reinstated.
Let her rather get paid to work than sit at home or go to the doctor. She can continue to save Knysna money whilst our town becomes an example to other towns.
I hope that you, the reader, join me in the demand for the Knysna Municipality and the DA needs to swiftly provide answers.
You don’t have to live here to send this letter. All you have to be is a good South African wanting responsible government and, if you’re a DA member, a cleaner DA.
Add a brief query/complaint to your email and, if you feel it necessary, reference this article by clicking the email share button below.
Send it to:
- DA MEC Local Government Anton Bredell – firstname.lastname@example.org
And CC it to:
- Mayor Eleanore Spies – email@example.com
- Speaker Georlene Wolmarans – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Acting Municipal Manager Johnny Douglas – email@example.com
- CFO Mbulelo Memani – firstname.lastname@example.org
- email@example.com (they have to supply you a Collab reference number so be sure to follow-up on it)
NB:I do not have Gobrie’s contact details so have not gained her viewpoint. Easton hasn’t responded to me regards many previous matters so pursuit is pointless. As usual, the Knysna Municipality and Democratic Alliance have chosen not to respond, further dismantling Mayor Eleanore Spies’ election promise of better communication. Staff, such as Haai, are not allowed to speak to me.