OUR BURNING ASSEMBLY
Suspect to appear in court, but fire again flares up at Parliament
The fire that started at Parliament in the early hours of Sunday morning has flared up once more, despite earlier indications that it was under control on Monday. The presiding officers of Parliament are still trying to assess the damage, with engineering and fire forensic teams assigned to investigate the scene. A suspect has been taken into custody and is due to appear in Cape Town Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.
While the fire that started at Parliament in the early hours of Sunday morning appeared to be under control on Monday morning, there has since been a flare up, with the space beneath the roof sheeting of the National Assembly catching fire. The Fire and Rescue Service has confirmed the flare-up, which is being managed by six fire-fighting appliances, as well as a hydraulic platform from Roeland Street Fire Station. About 34 firefighters are active at the scene.
In email correspondence with Daily Maverick just before midday, Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said that the fire was under control, with two fire engines and 10 firefighters still on the scene. Firefighting crews from Melkbosstrand, Constantia and Fish Hoek were the relief crews from around 8pm on Sunday, comprising about 20 firefighters. On Monday morning, crews from Roeland Street, Sea Point and Brooklyn were also on scene. “It is estimated that firefighters will withdraw in the next few hours,” said Smith.
At that stage, the third floor of the Old Assembly, which houses offices and a gymnasium, had been completely gutted. There was also “excessive damage” to the lobby section, Assembly Hall and first, second, third and fourth floors of the National Assembly, said Smith.
The flare-up comes just hours after the presiding officers of Parliament held a press briefing on developments regarding the fire. At the briefing, Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille announced that a team of electrical, structural and mechanical engineers, an architect and other professionals were brought in by her department on Monday morning to assess the damage.
“The engineers will focus on the repairs that need to be done, also on the cost of the repairs, and the timeframes for the repairs,” said De Lille. “We also brought in a fire expert that will determine exactly where the fire started, together with a fire forensic team. Their work has also started today.”
The team was unable to access the scene of the fire during the day, due to the temperatures inside the building still being around 100ºC. However, they are using a drone to assess the structure of the building until it is cool enough to enter, said De Lille.
The Speaker of the National Assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula; chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Amos Masondo; deputy chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Sylvia Lucas; House chairperson for international relations Winnie Ngwenya; and House chairperson for committees in the National Assembly Cedric Frolick also attended the briefing.
A preliminary report is expected to be delivered by 7 January 2022, according to De Lille. “That report will then be shared also with Madam Speaker and the presiding officers, and we will then decide together what to do, once we’ve seen the full extent of the cost and what needs to be prepared,” she added.
At the press briefing, Masondo confirmed the destruction of the National Assembly chamber.
“We are indeed deeply saddened by this incident. We are pained by the damage to the Old Assembly chamber and the National Assembly chamber, and all the critical offices of Parliament, which is a national keypoint,” said Masondo. “This democratic institution has a deep history which represents unparalleled heritage for our country and a source of social unity and cohesion required in our nation-building.”
Among those areas and items of Parliament that were preserved are the NCOP chambers and offices, the parliamentary library, the museum and various heritage objects, said Masondo.
“The multi-agency and multi-pronged investigations are under way, and will be in full swing once the whole building is declared safe and handed over to the investigation team. We wish to assure all people of South Africa that we will leave no stone unturned to enable appropriate actions to be taken by all relevant authorities,” he said.
The surveillance cameras at Parliament were all working at the time of the fire, noted Mapisa-Nqakula. “Not only has that been confirmed by the Secretary of Parliament, it has also been confirmed by the person responsible for that from the department of public works,” she said.
Mapisa-Nqakula denied a recent statement by the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) that Parliament had given the protection services a directive to do away with night shifts and reduce personnel, due to financial constraints.
“Yesterday, I called the Secretary of Parliament, just to seek clarity from her as to whether there is such a decision by the management of Parliament, and I’m told there isn’t such a decision,” she said. The presiding officers have yet to meet with Parliamentary Protection Services and the police to determine how the breach in security occurred.
Mapisa-Nqakula said the fire highlighted the importance of unity in South Africa, referencing an offer by the Cape Town International Convention Centre for Parliament to use its facilities, as well as Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis’ offer of City Hall for the upcoming State of the Nation Address.
“When a crisis occurs, it provides an opportunity for the country to come together and unite in finding a solution,” she said.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the presiding officers of Parliament assured that the 2022 State of the Nation Address and Budget speech would not be affected by the fire, despite the damage occurring at a “critical time” in preparations for these events.
Suspect in custody
On Sunday, Brigadier Nomthandazo Mbambo, spokesperson for the Hawks issued a press statement, confirming that a 49-year-old suspect had been arrested in connection with the fire that started at Parliament in Cape Town in the early hours of Sunday morning. The suspect is due to appear in the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court on 4 January 2022 on charges of housebreaking, theft and arson, as well as charges under the National Key Points Act.
The suspect was allegedly spotted by members of the Protection and Security Services, a division of the South African Police Service responsible for security at Parliament, around the time that they noticed the building was on fire. The matter has been referred to the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State team for further investigation.
“[The suspect] was found in possession of items believed to belong to Parliament but we are not at liberty to mention them. It’s suspected that he gained entry through a back window in one of the offices,” Mbambo told Daily Maverick. “When he accessed the building is still subject to investigation.” She added that no-one has been harmed in the fire.
Mbambo noted that the SAPS Protection and Security Services are not the only division responsible for security at Parliament, as this duty is shared by the Parliamentary Protection Services as well. DM
UPDATE on Tuesday, 4 January 2022: The fire was brought under control around midnight, Cape Town city officials said in a statement. “Teams are now working their way through the maze-like building, room-for-room, as they attempt to locate and extinguish (hot spots).”