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OUR BURNING ASSEMBLY

Devastating fire that laid waste to uninsured Parliament building reveals enormous safety deficiencies

The task of restoring a beautiful, historic building is much easier than fixing all that ails our nation in its economy, its politics, its political culture and its society. (Photo: Gallo Images/ER Lombard)

Preliminary observations showed Parliament building was fraught with significant health and safety issues — just one reason the fire spread rapidly.

The face of Parliament with its majestic history, artefacts, artwork and tapestry changed irrevocably in the early hours of Sunday, 2 January 2022, as a raging fire tore through the new House of Assembly.

After a gruelling 71 hours, the fire which engulfed this citadel of South Africa’s democracy was contained on Thursday, 5 January 2022. More than 300 firefighters were deployed, 60 firefighting appliances and two specialised aerial pieces or equipment were used during the three-day battle against the ferocious blaze.

Only when the fire was doused were firefighters able to submit an observation report on what might have possibly fuelled the inferno.

The New Assembly building was completely destroyed. It is estimated it would cost R1-billion to restore Parliament to its former glory. This would take years and the bill would be the taxpayers’ burden as the Parliament building wasn’t insured.

Last week, Department of Public Works acting director-general Imtiaz Fazel, responding to questions from National Freedom Party MP Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam, told MPs that the Parliament building has not been insured.

Fazel also told MPs the cost of insuring a R141-billion state property of more than 82,000 buildings is unaffordable.

On Friday, 7 January, the City of Cape Town released an observation report detailing all faulty fire equipment. However, the City reiterated that it was not an official fire report. The forensic information outlining the cause of the fire will be released by the Speaker of Parliament at a later stage.

Significant shortfalls identified in the City’s observation report revealed that the necessary precautionary measures to adequately respond to fire outbreaks were not in place.

“The sprinkler valve on the southern façade of the Old Assembly had not been activated. The sprinklers did not activate. The sprinklers were serviced last in 2017, with service scheduled for February 2020.

“The excessive heat and smoke encountered throughout the building was fuelled by the open-latching doors on to the fire escape using small metal latches. This latching open of fire doors assisted in the spread of the fire. This resulted in emergency staircases overcome by smoke due to the latching open of the fire door. The roof smoke vents did not activate at the National Assembly,” the report found.

Another shocking observation was that if the sprinkler valve was indeed serviced, this valve should have been locked with a chain in an open position and a block plan would have been available showing the system layout. But this block plan appeared to be illegible.

Mind-boggling, according to this report, is that no fire alarm was received by the Cape Town Fire Services from the Old or New Assembly building. An alarm was purportedly received after the firefighters were already on the scene, the report found.

The suspected arsonist, Zandile Mafe (49), was arrested shortly after the fire and faces an array of charges, with the most prominent being contravention of section 5 of Act 33 of 2004, Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities Act.

Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille admitted on Tuesday, 4 January, in a virtual meeting called by the Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament, that the suspect was in the Parliament precinct between 2am and 6am on the morning of 2 January. He was only spotted around 6.15am when police came on duty.

No one manned the CCTV cameras monitoring Parliament and no Parliamentary Protection Services were on duty. No employees were deployed to work overnight and on public holidays in Parliament. Employees only worked from 8am to 4pm and 12pm to 8pm.

(Graphic: Rudi Louw | Photo: Leila Dougan)

Professor Richard Walls, a professor of structural and fire engineering and head of the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University, said: “If we have a building with significant defects and if a fire breaks out it is likely to cause more damage and endanger life.”

In order to prevent a fire from spreading, he said, it is vital that fire doors work, adding that fire safety consists of many things when one has to try to compartmentalise the fire.

“It is important to try to keep the fire where it started. So, if the fire doors failed, then the fire will spread. To put out a fire as quickly as possible, we need the sprinklers,” he explains.

But the City’s observation report states that the sprinkler valve was not opened.

Also important, when it comes to dealing with a fire, he said: “There are checks and balances, as well and multiple levels, and often things have to work together but when there are multiple failures, the fire is more likely to escalate to a large disaster.

“With any fire, if you come along at the right time with a cup of coffee, you could put out the fire with your cup of coffee and walk away. It is just a question of how much time there is for the fire to develop to get larger. As the fire gets larger without being put out, it becomes progressively harder and harder to actually do anything about it, especially then as systems fail,” Walls explained.

At the Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament, De Lille received a lot of flak. She was adamant that a pre-State of the Nation Address (Sona) inspection indicated that all the fire equipment was in working order.

“Electrical distribution boards were serviced annually, lighting replaced as required, fire detection equipment, fire extinguishers, fire hose and fire hydrants, as well as fire sprinklers, were serviced annually,” a report presented by De Lille’s department indicated.

Members of Parliament found it rather strange that if all maintenance was done in December 2021 before Sona, how is it possible that the devastating fire broke out on 2 January 2022.

However, the City’s observation report contradicts De Lille and showed consistent shortfalls in the pre-Sona inspection of the precinct for 2021, 2020 and 2019. 

The three inspections revealed in the New Assembly that it is still to be ascertained if the emergency evacuation system was in working order. In the Old Assembly, the fire panel and fire phones need to be operational and usable, the three pre-Sona inspections found.

Also notable is that servicing certifications were required for the fire alarm panels, fire detection system, compressed air breathing apparatus, emergency evacuation communication system and all electrical work.

One of the recommendations was that parliamentary protection services and SAPS members be trained on emergency systems and drills.

It is against this backdrop that the Branch Executive Committee (BEC) of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) in Parliament decided to withdraw its members from Parliament over safety concerns. The union has put clearly to Parliament that none of its members will be reporting for duty at Parliament until such time as the precinct and its building have been declared safe to work.

The Nehawu decision hinges on the provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (No.85 of 1993), which stipulate that employers have a duty to ensure a safe and healthy working environment and, as far as reasonably possible, may not allow employees to do any work unless necessary precautionary measures have been taken to protect their health and safety in the workplace.

Again, when it comes to adhering to occupational health and safety, it was found that Parliament was non-compliant with these regulations since 2018. The 2018 Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Audit report found Parliament was non-compliant with 13 health and safety areas. The audit was conducted by Ohsa-Health and Safety Consultants.

The report found:

  1. An Occupational Health and Safety policy was in draft format and not approved and implemented. Parliament was not able to provide a signed or approved Occupational Health and Safety policy document. In addition, no approved Safety Policy or Safety Management system for Parliament has been identified.
  2. No emergency drills have been conducted in the past 12 months (2018) and personnel were unaware of where to go in the event of an emergency.
  3. No Emergency Preparedness and Response policy or procedures were in place at the time of the audit.
  4. No accidents, incidents, investigations of non-conformance policy or procedure at the time of the audit were in place for verification.

One of the key recommendations was that a safe working process, namely a Health and Safety Management system, should be developed and implemented.

These shortcomings were again raised by Nehawu Parliament spokesperson Temba Gubulu in a letter dated 7 January 2022.

“It is patently clear that workers’ lives are not safe at Parliament and, as a responsible union, we cannot allow our members to work in such an environment.”

Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo’s immediate response was that the report of the Fire and Rescue Services only contains preliminary observations of the firefighters during the course of the work.

“It neither purports to provide conclusive findings and evidence regarding the cause and the circumstances surrounding the fire incident nor provides an assessment of the safety of the other parliamentary building not affected by the fire.”

Thami Mchunu, acting chief director of communications and marketing at the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, said: “The department initiated the necessary servicing and, once all servicing is completed, the department will collect all certificates of compliance and servicing records and submits these to the Provincial Joint Operations Centre.”

On Thursday, 13 January 2022, the National Assembly Programming Committee (NAPC) and the Joint NA & NCOP Programming Committee convened in separate meetings to reaffirm business continuity plans in the wake of the fire that gutted the New and Old Assembly buildings.

Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said: “The damage to our Chamber and other spaces where we gather to do our work has indeed left us all deeply saddened.

“Spaces and symbols mean so much to our democracy. However, it is still us as members and elected representatives of the people who are the cornerstone of what constitutes Parliament.”

On Friday, 14 January 2022, De Lille and senior members of her department gave feedback on the fire at Parliament to the Joint Committee on Financial Management of Parliament.

Thembeka Kolele, head of Construction Projects in Cape Town, informed MPs that maintenance certificates from January 2021 and November 2021 confirmed that all fire safety equipment was in good working order, for both Old and National Assembly.

Touching on the 16 March 2021 fire at the Old Assembly, Kolele underlined that the sprinkler system was in fact activated, which reduced the fire damage. The sprinklers and other systems were subsequently repaired after this fire.

“The annual maintenance certificate arising from the November 2021 inspection again confirms that all fire safety equipment was in safe and good working condition.

“Following the March 2021 fire, DPW can confirm that work has been carried out on the sprinkler system in the Old Assembly. DPW can confirm the department had replaced the activated sprinkler heads and recommissioned with the valve on.”

But for the National Assembly, Kolele said, this was not applicable because that fire was only confined to the Old Assembly and no repairs were required.

Reacting to the last fire equipment report issued before the incident, Kolele said: “We do understand there is a report that indicates that the sprinkler system was last in service in 2017. When we were conducting our investigation and reviewing our consultants’ reports submitted to the department, we noted that they erroneously reported that the sprinklers were serviced annually rather than every three years.”

If Mafe is declared unfit to stand trial, it means the end of the case.

Even if suspected arsonist Mafe is declared unfit to stand trial, somebody needs to be held accountable. Reports reveal that Parliament was an unsafe environment to work in and a ticking time bomb.

The final forensic report compiled by the Hawks, in conjunction with engineers and a fire expert, will hopefully point fingers to culprits potentially contributing to the unsafe environment. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Don’t think it is a surprise that parliament was not maintained, what in South Africa is. It goes from weeds on pavements, to Eskom’s fire stations. This is odd for a country that has such high unemployment, but then again the more money spent on maintenance the less that can be stolen.

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