South Africa

OUR BURNING ASSEMBLY

Major fire wracks parliament building, raising questions about why no protection services staff were on duty

SA Parliament on Fire (Twitter)

When the fire in Parliament’s Old Assembly wing started early Sunday morning, no parliamentary protection services staff was on duty – shifts over weekends and public holidays were canned to save on overtime pay, according to the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union.

The damage by all accounts is significant. It’s understood to have started on the third floor of the historic Old Assembly building  around 5am. 

“From where I’m sitting I do not what to speculate what happened in Parliament…,” said National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said in an online briefing on Sunday lunchtime where she was asked about social media claims of an attack. 

“In the next 48 hours the SAPS will provide us with a report (with) an indication of what their suspicions are.”

In an earlier statement Parliament also said investigations were underway; no one has been injured.

“The presiding officers of Parliament are distressed by this incident and the extent of the damage caused thus far to the precincts of the seat of the national legislature. They have urged all relevant authorities to leave no stone unturned in establishing the cause of the fire. The public will be kept updated,” that statement said.

But for the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) Sunday’s fire the latest in a series of health and safety mis-steps. 

“Parliament can’t rely on the police alone. They are outside. We are supposed to have the PPS (parliamentary protection service) inside 24 hours… The PPS was not there because they (management) say they can’t pay overtime,” Nehawu Parliament branch Chairperson Sthembiso Tembe told Daily Maverick.

 “Had they (PPS) been there they would have been able to intervene and minimise the damage.”

The union says it has contacted the administration over health and safety concerns already last year. In July 2021 Nehawu asked for an update on implementing recommendations of a 2018 report that, according to the union, was critical of compliance levels at the national legislature. The response from the parliamentary administration was to say measures were being put in place, according to two union officials on Sunday.

That 2018 report, seen by Daily Maverick, flags in red, or high risk a range of health and safety areas – from lack of policy, controls and other issues like “verification of legal compliance can not be demonstrated”.

DA MP Samantha Graham similarly raised concerns, drawing attention to another report, the 2020 independent BDO assessment highlighting health and safety compliance issues across the parliamentary precinct.

“I understand that report details over 30 violations of concern,” Graham told Daily Maverick adding that the report emerged only after her parliamentary question in September 2020. To date, the report has not been publicly released. “I have tried everything to get a copy of the report”.

During Sunday’s online media briefing Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia De Lille said “the report is being processed”.

Parliament’s spokesperson Moloto Mothapo was contacted via text, and telephone, for comment on these specific points, including the role of the PPS. No response had been received by time of publication. 

The fire on what in Cape Town is traditionally marked as Second New Year started on the third and top floor – ANC MPs have offices there – and spread quickly. Police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo told News24: “I can confirm that a man of 51 years of age has been taken in for questioning in respect of the fire which broke out in Parliament today.”

“We currently have six fire-fighting appliances and approximately 36 fire-fighters on scene… The roof area has caught alight… The fire has not been contained and reports of cracks in some walls of the building have been confirmed,” said City of Cape Town’s safety and security mayoral committee member JP Smith in a statement time stamped 7.45am circulated on WhatsApp.

De Lille, Deputy State Security Minister Zizi Kodwa, the SAPS and parliamentary officials also arrived at the precinct.

Sunday’s fire is the second at Parliament in less than 10 months. In mid-March 2021 a fire broke out in a committee venue in the Old Assembly wing, but was contained to the room as the sprinkler system also kicked in. The official fire investigation determined it had been an electrical fault.

But Sunday’s major blaze also is the latest in a series of incidents at the national legislature which over the past 22 months of the Covid-19 lockdown has not operated at full capacity in physical reality.

Incidents that made the parliamentary grapevine include copper pipes being stolen and a bag of dagga dumped at one of the entrances in late 2021. It also includes the break-in at the offices of DA Chief Whip Natasha Mazzone, which she had described to fellow MPs in a programming committee meeting as vandalism, with the office thrashed.

At the 1994 democratic transition Parliament had a Parliamentary Protection Service (PPS) – effectively the in-House security of all matters of the precinct – whose boss was part of the institution’s top management, and headed the security committee to liaise with among other the SAPS that are seconded to assist with access control at the gates of Parliament. 

However since 30 July 2015 the PPS has not had a permanent head. Then incumbent Zelda Holtzman and her deputy Motlatsi Mokgatla were suspended over allegations of “security breaches”, as the official statement at the time put it. Mokgatla’s contract ran out while on suspension; Holtzman fought the suspension and the October 2017 independent disciplinary proceedings’ recommendation of her dismissal. Ultimately a settlement was reached in May 2018.

But to date the position of parliamentary protection services boss is held in an acting capacity. An advert for the job that appeared in August 2019 showed the post downscaled to security management in the household division.

According to De Lille, the state security deputy minister would issue a “security report” on Sunday’s fire, confirming President Cyril Ramaphosa had been briefed.

Amid speculation to the cause of the fire, and its seemingly rapid spread, Mapisa-Nqakula reiterated it was too early to speculate.

“I really do not want to believe we have reached the point that a person would walk into Parliament and burn down our Constitution,” the National Assembly Speaker said in reference to the drafting and 1996 adoption of the Constitution in Parliament. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 23

    • Agreed. But W.T.F has the f…ing Union to do with this? Saving on overtime pay? Are the unions now running the country? Where the hell were the security? Maybe JP can answer, since he is the boss man of security in Cape Town, useless as he is. Or will he, again, blame it on God-knows-who? Not that parliament is a real parliament. Run by a disfuntional ANC cadre deployment, and a wishy-washy opposition under the old wish-she-was queen Zille. Maybe the whole darn place should have burned off, because it will safe us for watchicg a bunch of clowns in the building consisting of the worst politicians this country can face, with the 3 biggest leading the race for who is the most useless.

        • Coen, I love the way that you just burp once and all the bile come out at the same time. Don’t have a heart attack about Madame Zille or Useless JP, they’re simply not worth it and will move on. This country is what it is and all colonial structures must be destroyed and replaced by better like squatter camps. This is all about not having to take responsibility for past indiscretions because they were following party orders from 40 or so years ago. It all goes under the heading of “going to hell in a hand basket”.

      • Coen, you have it wrong. JP Smith is a City of Cape Town official. Parliament is a national institution, which happens to be situated in Cape Town. Its safety is not the responsibility of the City of Cape Town.

          • It took 6 minutes for the Cape Town Municiple Fire Department to respond. They fall under J.P.Smith. Very sharp department run by a very sharp JP! You cannot be specific with your gripe about Zille, so you just insult. Sub-standard.

        • Mr. Ross, you have crossed the line. I am 70 years old, and it has been a very long time since I even bothered about a drunken New Year’s eve party. So just P..s off!

      • To Glyn Morgan who claimes that the fire dept arrived within 6 minutes, due to the brilliance of JP Smith. Yet a day and a half later the fire is still burning. Some achievement! Ps. My appologies to firefighters, but they are not just fighting fires, but politicians like Smith, whom sat with a stop watch to measure the time split, at 5am in the morning

  • Good time to move all the politicians to Pretoria and save many billions on the dual offices, extensive travel, parliamentary housing, etc, etc.

  • Nehawu are quick off the mark with a seemingly prepared position detailing various shortcomings over the past year in preventative maintenance and staffing levels, yet we now know that it was sabotage, and worse, collaborative sabotage in that fire alert systems, water delivery systems and staff on duty over this important weekend, were tampered with to maximise the impact of fire. Further it is clear from the early pictures we have seen that accelerants were used and how on earth were these brought onto this critical national site undetected?

    This all points to a massive, collective failure, again by our critical security cluster, which it is clear was heavily compromised and seemingly easily blind-sided in the July insurrection.

    Time to take the gloves off, Mr President, forget about holding the ANC together as your number one priority, and get the miscreants off the streets. You said that you knew who was behind the July insurrection yet you and the police/security forces did nothing.

    Acyt now, Mr President; clean out properly your Augean stables – the smell of horse-shit is overwhelming.

  • In July the tactic was the same.. First disable the sprinklers . The same Mapisa Nqakula not very visible in response. Again. Who changed the security arrangement to nil for the night? Just like the July non action of police and army.

  • I have a theory that all the hot air (especially the incendiary and insulting variety of my pal Juju) released in parliament, built up to a combustible level … and with climate change had to find release some time (especially with the arch no longer able to keep an eye over it) ! All this speculation about security lapses and sprinkler/smoke detection systems being out of action, as well as saboteurs … is all but poppycock ! As with the claim by CR that he ‘knew’ who the ‘insurrectionists’ were … it will come to nought . Leave it to the ‘professionals’ (like Athur Frasier) in the united ANC !

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted