OUR BURNING ASSEMBLY
48 hours of fire: A timeline of the Parliament blaze
While contention and confusion continue to shroud South Africa’s understanding of the fire at Parliament, certain elements are known. In an effort to provide greater clarity on the devastating event and its fallout, Daily Maverick has laid out these developments chronologically.
02:00 – ‘I think Parliament will have to answer’
A man entered Parliament at 2am on 2 January 2022. What he did next is a matter of much contention. Did he start a fire? Did he steal laptops, crockery and documents, as claimed in the state’s charges against him? Did he simply take a private tour?
With the investigation ongoing, these questions have no definitive answers. However, CCTV footage shows that arson-accused Zandile Christmas Mafe, who lives in Khayelitsha, was inside Parliament in the early hours of Sunday morning, according to Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille.
In her report to the Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament on 4 January 2022, De Lille stated, “There was no one to monitor the [CC]TV cameras from two o’clock in the morning when this person entered the building until six 0’clock when the police arrived. And for that, I think Parliament will have to answer.”
06:12 – ‘Initially, I didn’t actually believe it’
The fire was reported to Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service just after 6am, and they arrived within six minutes of the call.
While Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Nomthandazo Mbambo would not confirm the exact time of Mafe’s arrest, due to the ongoing investigation, a press statement issued on Sunday said he was “spotted by members of the Protection and Security Services (PSS) when they noticed the building was on fire”.
Among the first to respond to the fire were Jacques Swanepoel and Llewellyn de Lange, two firemen from Goodwood Fire Station, each with 10 years of service under their belts.
“I think […] initially I didn’t actually believe it [when] they said, ‘Parliament is burning now’,” said Swanepoel. He added that before they arrived, he thought it would be a situation that could be easily contained, like a kitchen fire.
The reality was far more challenging.
“Parliament was a big one,” said Swanepoel. “We’re used to structural fires, but not something of this size.”
Accessing the fire was difficult due to the solid doors and upgraded locking mechanisms within the building, according to Swanepoel.
“We also didn’t know the layout and we had to break down every door to see where it was burning and where it was not burning,” said De Lange. “That is all time consuming and energy consuming.”
The firemen needed to proceed with caution, looking out for areas where the floor was unstable or rooms that might “flash”, which is when all the combustibles in a room hit a certain ignition point and catch fire at the same time, said Swanepoel.
“You kick into overdrive,” said De Lange, adding that he and his team are always ready to knuckle down and do what they need to do at the scene of a fire.
De Lille, who arrived at Parliament at around 8am, described her reaction as one of shock.
“[I] could see that the fire was just pouring out,” she said. “It was very sad to see the house of democracy burning. I mean, this is where the elected representatives hold the executive to account. This is where we have debates. Just the legacy of all the speeches by our late Tata Madiba, the grand speech of 2 February 1990… all of those things went through my mind.”
Around 13:00 – ‘It’s a terrible and devastating event’
By the time President Cyril Ramaphosa arrived, there were about 70 firefighters on the scene. Ramaphosa stood with his back to the burning Parliament buildings while addressing the media and an unsettled nation.
“This is devastating news. It’s a terrible and devastating event,” he said. He was quick to assure the public that the work of Parliament would carry on, despite the destruction behind him.
“It does seem like the sprinkler system did not work as it was supposed to,” said Ramaphosa, adding that the fire services’ swift arrival at the scene saved “a very important national asset of our government”.
A draft fire incident report dated 26 July 2021, following a previous blaze, has since revealed several other fire safety issues at Parliament, including an absence of smoke detectors in the building’s roof space, according to a recent report by Daily Maverick’s Vincent Cruywagen.
19:45 – ‘All efforts will be made to limit any disruption of the business of Parliament’
Parliament’s presiding officers appealed for calm on Sunday evening. While the fire came at a critical time in the preparations for hosting the 2022 State of the Nation Address and Budget speech, they assured South Africans that these programmes would not be affected by the fire.
“The presiding officers of Parliament are assuring the citizens of South Africa that all efforts will be made to limit any disruption of the business of Parliament following the fire that gutted parts of the parliamentary precinct today,” said Parliament’s press statement.
Around 20:00 – ‘The experience was there in terms of the staff’
Firefighting crews from Melkbosstrand, Constantia and Fish Hoek, comprising about 20 firefighters, arrived at the scene to relieve their colleagues.
“To be honest, we’ve had much larger incidents than [the Parliament fire] in the city. And the appropriate incident command teams were there, the experience was there in terms of the staff,” said Ian Schnetler, chief fire officer of the City of Cape Town, on the type of leadership that was key in managing such a large fire.
“The operations in terms of rotating relief crews, getting in extra resources, change of shift… all of those went very, very smoothly because you have an experienced ICS (incident command system).”
06:50 – ‘Hope to withdraw within the next two to three hours’
By Monday morning, the fire crews were attending to hotspots on the fourth floor of the National Assembly, according to an update by JP Smith, Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security. However, the rest of the building was under control.
Firefighting crews at the scene had been scaled back, with two fire engines and 10 firefighters remaining. It was hoped that the final team would withdraw “within the next two to three hours”, said Smith.
11:50 – ‘Certain sections are still hot’
In communication with Daily Maverick just before midday, Smith said that the third floor of the Old Assembly, which houses offices and a gymnasium, was completely gutted and the roof had caved in. The lobby section, Assembly Hall and first, second and third floors had also sustained “excessive damage”, said Smith.
“Certain sections are still hot because heat was trapped, but firefighters are currently ventilating the building,” said Smith, adding that the rest of the fire had been contained.
13:30 – ‘The multi-agency and multi-pronged investigations are under way’
At a press briefing on Monday afternoon, Parliament’s presiding officers confirmed that a team of electrical, structural and mechanical engineers, an architect and other professionals would investigate the fire.
Encircled by microphones and cameras, De Lille stated, “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.” A fire expert and fire forensic team had also begun investigating.
“The multi-agency and multi-pronged investigations are under way,” said Amos Masondo, chairperson of the National Council of Provinces.
In reference to a recent statement by the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), Speaker of the National Assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula denied that Parliament had given the protection services a directive to cancel 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.
Nehawu reached out to its members in the Parliamentary Protection Services shortly after learning of the fire, according to Sthembiso Tembe, chairperson of the Nehawu Parliament branch.
“Our main concern was the safety and wellbeing of our members and everybody that could have been in the precinct when the fire broke out,” said Tembe.
Nehawu’s members confirmed that none of them were scheduled to work on the day of the incident, due to a lack of money to pay them overtime for public holidays and weekends, said Tembe.
On reaching out to Parliament to confirm these claims, Daily Maverick was told, “The dispute between Nehawu and Parliament is being dealt with internally. [P]residing Officers want an opportunity to deal with union concerns without public exchanges.”
This response provides little satisfaction for a nation wondering where those tasked with guarding one of the country’s most important national key points were at the time it started to burn.
16:39 – ‘It was observed that the fire spread through the roof void’
The situation deteriorated dramatically after a flare-up on the roof of the National Assembly building. Firefighting reinforcements were subsequently deployed, according to a Tweet by Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo.
A combination of factors led to the flare-up, including the wooden structures, confined spaces and continuous heat build-up from the fire in the National Assembly, according to Schnetler.
“That all got trapped up on top there,” he said. “Then it was observed that the fire spread through the roof void.”
18:20 – ‘The resilience, courage and bravery of the firefighters’
By Monday evening, the number of firefighters at the scene had been increased to 34, with six fire tenders and a hydraulic platform at their disposal.
“The presiding officers continue to be encouraged by the resilience, courage and bravery of the firefighters in their battle to bring the fire under complete control,” said a Parliament press release.
Around 00:00 – ‘The fight against the fire continued into midnight’
Strong south-easterly winds saw the firefighters battling flames well into the night.
“The fight against the fire continued into midnight following yesterday afternoon’s re-emergence,” stated Parliament. Later, the wind speed dropped, allowing firefighters to extinguish the blaze.
09:30 – ‘Of course, we are going to be affected’
While Parliament announced that the flare-up was contained by Tuesday morning, the implications of the 48 hours of fire were only just setting in. For Prisca Horogan, an employee of Infinite Café near Parliament, the fire will have a direct and personal impact.
“What came into my mind is, firstly, it’s business. Of course we are going to be affected,” Horogan said. “[Parliament is] what brings more money here, so with that we’re so depressed because we know that there’s not going to be meetings.”
The fire also represents a loss for the country, due to the cost of repairs and lost jobs, she said.
10:36 – ‘How’s this guy getting inside there?’
Few courtrooms have been as tense as the one Zandile Mafe entered at the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday morning. Facing a barrage of cameras, Mafe removed his mask and made a deliberate point of showing himself to the media.
The state brought five charges against Mafe and was granted a seven-day deferral to collect more information and evidence.
In an impassioned address outside the court, the accused’s defence attorney, Luvuyo Godla, claimed his client was a “scapegoat for failures of the executive and legislature”.
Many remain confused as to how Mafe, an apparently unemployed man living in Site B of Khayelitsha, was able to gain access to a vital national key point.
“They say it was one of our people, homeless people,” said Abdul Kadel Smith, an unhomed man who spends time around Parliament. Summing up the sentiments of a nation, he asked, “What’s the purpose? How’s this guy getting inside there?”
16:55 – “A space is to be created for further engagement”
Nehawu and Parliament released a joint statement saying that Nehawu’s concerns are being brought to the attention of Parliament’s presiding officers with immediate effect.
“As a way forward, it was agreed that a space is to be created for further engagement on all issues of concern and to cease with public strife,” said the statement.
15:50 – “It’s just another day at the office”
After three days of turmoil and confusion, in which the country’s legislative seat was reduced to smoking ruins, Parliament confirmed that the fire had finally been contained. One fire engine remained at the scene, along with five crew members, to ensure there were no further flare-ups.
Over the four days, 300 firefighters and more than 60 fire engines were in attendance.
“If you ask some firefighters, they would know that it’s Parliament, but to them, it’s just another day at the office,” said Schnetler, on the firefighters’ approach to managing the blaze. DM
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