South Africa's Parliament building in Cape Town was severely deteriorated by a huge fire Sunday. Although nobody has been reported injured, the event has sparked national security concerns. A suspect has been arrested. Firefighters worked for hours to extinguish the blaze.
While the cause of the fire is yet to be determined, Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said both the Old Assembly Wing and the National Assembly Wing of the parliament buildings were affected. Investigations are underway by the relevant authorities,” said Mothapo. President Cyril Ramaphosa called it a “terrible and devastating event”, as he vowed parliament’s work would resume as scheduled following the holidays recess.
National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was concerned about a possible national security crack as the House's roof collapsed due to the flames, just when key issues were to be discussed and decided,” she explained. “It would not only be an attack on parliament, but it would be an attack on everything South Africans have fought for and their democracy,” she added. Mapisa-Nqakula also said the State of the Nation Address will go on as planned by President Ramaphosa Feb. 10, although an alternative venue will need to be found.
Cape Town’s Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said the city’s Council Chamber would be made available as an alternative place for parliament to meet. “We want to see parliament continue its important work, and we will do what we can to help,” he said.
The fire started in the early hours of the morning in the third-floor offices and spread to the National Assembly chamber, said Jermaine Carelse, spokesman of the Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service.
The Houses of Parliament in Cape Town consist of three sections, including the original and oldest building that was completed in 1884. In April last year, a fire ravaged part of The University of Cape Town's library housing a unique collection of African archives.
A 51-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the incident. Early reports indicated it was just for questioning, but a police spokesperson later said the man was facing charges of arson, housebreaking and theft, and would appear in court on Tuesday.
Brigadier Nomthandazo Mbambo said the suspect is also expected to be charged under the National Key Points Act, which protects sites of strategic importance. Further details were not immediately available.
In a statement released Sunday night, South Africa’s parliament confirmed there had been “significant damage” to the New Assembly Wing of the building, which includes the National Assembly chamber, while some offices had been “severely gutted”.
The fire began shortly after 6 am local time the day after Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s state funeral at St George’s Cathedral, near parliament.
Ramaphosa, who visited the scene, said news of the fire was a “terrible setback to what we were basking in yesterday”, and added that Archbishop Tutu would also have been devastated. The President also admitted the building’s sprinkler system had not functioned properly, and praised firefighters for responding to the fire in minutes.
Jean-Pierre Smith, a member of the Cape Town mayoral committee for safety and security, told reporters that the roof above the old assembly hall was “completely gone” and further damage inside the old chamber had not yet been assessed. “It is not possible to see whether it’s damaged. We hope it is not because it has so many historical artifacts, but you can’t gain access to it without breaking the doors down and we don’t want to do that,” he said. He also explained the fire alarm only rang when firefighters were already on site.
The Houses of Parliament in Cape Town are made up of three sections, with the oldest dating back to 1884. The newer sections built in the 1920s and 1980s house the National Assembly. Meanwhile, the government is based in Pretoria.
It was the second fire at the parliament in under a year. In March there was a fire caused by an electrical fault.