South Africa

OUR BURNING ASSEMBLY

Parliament officials grilled over lack of fire preparedness

The blaze at Parliament in Cape Town on Monday, 3 January 2022. Firefighters had battled the blaze that engulfed the National Assembly since the weekend. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

An independent audit in 2018 found Parliament did not meet occupational health and safety standards and it appears little was done after that to protect the building in the event of a fire.

Following the blaze that destroyed the National Assembly, leaders of Parliament have been called on to explain the institution’s apparent failure to implement health and safety recommendations from as far back as 2018.

Parliament has confirmed that external auditing company OHSA Health and Safety Consultants submitted a safety, health and environment (SHE) report in May 2018 that was carried out to ensure the legislative body complied with the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act.

The damning report said the company was unable to audit Parliament’s policy or procedure relating to emergency preparedness and response, as well as accidents, incidents and investigating noncompliance, as such policies were essentially nonexistent.  

The report said that no approved safety policy or safety management system for Parliament had been identified.

One of the key recommendations then was that a safe working process should be developed and implemented at Parliament. A timeline commencing in March 2019 and concluding in May 2019 was set down for a host of recommendations to be implemented.

Following the devastating fire on Sunday, 2 January, members of Parliament demanded answers during a virtual meeting hosted by the joint standing committee on financial management of Parliament on Tuesday, 4 January.

Infuriated MPs also demanded that appropriate action be taken against officials who seem to have been derelict in their duty to create a safe environment within Parliament.

The serious breaches outlined in the SHE report were also a bone of contention on Tuesday in a separate meeting between Parliament and the union Nehawu. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the way forward to ensure that Parliament offers a safe environment for employees and MPs.

The meeting was attended by the presiding Officers of Parliament represented by the Speaker of the National Assembly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and a delegation from Nehawu, led by its president, Mike Shingange.

In a joint statement, the parties said the meeting was held in the wake of unfortunate public tension since the outbreak of the fire relating to matters of security and occupational health and safety.

However, from what emerged from the joint meeting, it appears that Parliament still has a long way to go in addressing the shortcomings outlined in the SHE audit report.

Nehawu’s national spokesperson, Lwazi Nkolonzi, told Daily Maverick that the meeting highlighted issues raised in the audit report that Parliament must implement.

“In the spirit of this meeting, it was agreed we will work together to address these issues. We have agreed to identify these areas and work together to assist and fast-track the process.

“It is mainly on these issues outlined in the SHE audit report that Parliament should adhere to and make sure the environment is safe for employees and members of Parliament.”

Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo reiterated the concerns expressed by Nehawu, including on the audit report, which is understood to have been submitted to Parliament’s accounting officer and will be brought to the attention of its presiding officers. 

“Any further information that Nehawu is in possession of regarding occupational safety and health, as well as parliamentary security, will form part of the ongoing internal inquiry and must also be handed over to the investigation process by various authorities, including the team of experts currently in Parliament,” said Mothapo.

“The Presiding Officers of Parliament will ensure that no stone is left unturned in both external and internal investigations on the circumstances pertaining to the fire outbreak. As matters stand, there is no conclusive evidence or outcome indicating the cause of the fire, as the investigations are ongoing.”

On 11 July 2021, Nehawu asked Parliament what actions had been taken to remedy its failure to comply with the provisions of the OHS Act.

Back then Nehawu’s branch secretary, Temba Gubula, put it to Baby Tyawa, the acting Secretary to Parliament, that the SHE audit report found that of the 13 areas investigated, 11 were classified as high-risk exposure and two medium-risk.

“This means that members of Parliament worked in an unsafe environment,” Gubula pointed out.

Tyawa responded on 16 July 2021, indicating the SHE audit was conducted to ensure that Parliament as an institution complied with the OHS Act.

At that time, Tyawa’s response was, “I am satisfied that remedial measures are being put in place to ensure that the issues highlighted in the report are being addressed.”

parliament fire
Parliament in Cape Town burns on 3 January 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard)

Another contentious point, raised by DA Shadow Public Works Minister Samantha Graham this week, is why the 2 January fire was allowed to spread.

“We believe that some of the fire protection equipment that should have been in place to protect our beautiful heritage was not in place. There were numerous reports since 2014 around the issue of the facilities management side that have not been addressed.

“There is evidence of cost cutting. There is evidence people have been appointed on the cheapest quote instead of the best quote,” Graham claimed.

Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille, she alleged, was trying to negate another independent audit report compiled by BDO in 2020. She claimed the report was hidden from De Lille and only submitted to her on 17 September 2021, almost a year after the department received it.

This damning report found that refurbishment projects in Parliament were over-budgeted and not delivered on time. In a statement on 23 September 2021, De Lille indicated that the lack of planning and wasteful expenditure, ventilation system design and fire protection in the precinct needed to be reviewed by a fire consultant.

Graham further underlined that the finding of non-compliance to fire regulations was significant, adding that the Department of Public Works had knowledge of the fact that “our systems were deficient and should there be a massive fire they would be unable to address it”.

During the virtual meeting on Tuesday, De Lille underlined that a fire in March 2021 and the 2 January blaze were not linked.

Graham, who agreed they weren’t linked, reiterated that a number of recommendations made after the March 2021 fire indicated the entire precinct was at risk if they were not implemented.

“There were problems with the monitoring system, the fire panels, the system in place to stop the fire, the ventilation system and the sprinkler system,” Graham explained.

A draft fire incident report dated 26 July 2021 revealed there were no smoke detectors installed in Parliament’s roof space, hence the long delay before a smoke detector was triggered in the New Wing.

This report also revealed that all the 70 smoke detectors in the Old Assembly are of the conventional ionisation type, about 16 years old. The manufacturer no longer makes the product because of its radioactive content.

Another serious shortcoming identified was that there appeared to be no fire dampers in the roof. These dampers would assist with directing smoke away from a used space and preventing smoke from spreading to another area.

While investigations are ongoing, De Lille has been reluctant to comment on the cause of the fire and its spread. DM

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  • I think the DA response “our beautiful heritage” contains the essence of why this illogically reported, poorly responded to, poorly managed, obfuscations of blame and general lack all round exists.

    Judging from the press reports its not difficult to indentify at least part of the problem here is the Eurocentric icons that exist. While I get the painful reminders for people, destroying these structures will not bring about the peace that we all seek. Societies grow into themselves by building on and changing, not by tearing down to nothing.