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