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Rising from the ashes — building blocks for National Assembly’s restoration are being slowly assembled

Rising from the ashes — building blocks for National Assembly’s restoration are being slowly assembled
The blaze at Parliament in Cape Town on Monday, 3 January 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

One implementing agent. R2bn, barring any surprises and cost overruns. Twenty-four months. And then the National Assembly should be back to 100% physical sittings in plenary and committee.

It’s taken 13 months, two weeks and six days to get here since the 2 January 2022 conflagration in Parliament. And soon, hopefully, the rubble and broken bits and pieces that today are the fire-gutted National Assembly will be removed in the first step of what’s dubbed the Parliament restoration project.

“Parliament and the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA)… have agreed to collaborate in tandem with other stakeholders such as the DPWI [Department of Public Works and Infrastructure] and the [National] Treasury,” announced Secretary to Parliament Xolile George in a televised briefing on Tuesday.

“The DBSA is the most suitable entity to play this role, given its expertise and experience of providing infrastructure management services, which include design, construction, upgrades, refurbishment and total facilities management to several other organs of state.”

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Not everyone is keen.

EFF leader Julius Malema is submitting a private member’s bill on moving Parliament to Tshwane. Siviwe Gwarube, the chief whip of the DA — which is pursuing a legal case for Parliament to find alternative venues to fully resume functioning — said the announcement that rubble would be removed was hardly something to be applauded.

The billions have been available since the October 2022 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement. The allocation was hard fought for, with at least one marathon session between top Parliament, Public Works and National Treasury officials.

national assembly fire

Firefighters battle the blaze that engulfed the National Assembly in Parliament on Monday 03 January 2022. The blaze began in the older part of the building and spread to the new assembly in the afternoon. According to Parliament spokesman Moloto Mothapo the roof of the National Assembly collapsed. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

The assessments of damage and possible repair options have been available since August. Initial checks took three weeks, then another seven months were taken by the Public Works-appointed agency to finalise all its reports.

Somewhere in between all these reports and timelines, Parliament itself moved to save and restore the paintings that were damaged by the mould in the waterlogged and damaged basement where much of the parliamentary artwork is stored. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The art of avoiding the issue of Parliament’s mouldy old treasures

Designing a new National Assembly building still seems outstanding — and not without some hopeful thinking of a prettier Phoenix rising from the ashes.

“The restoration project provides a unique opportunity to ensure spaces are designed in a manner that best suits the specific needs of a democratic Parliament, and to modernise the institution’s digital infrastructure,” said George on Tuesday.

national assembly fire

Firefighters battle the blaze at Parliament on Monday, 3 January. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Talking also of more committee rooms and improved facilities, George added, “Offices of members [MPs] is of utmost importance. No member should say I am unable to come to Parliament, I don’t have an office…”

Reshaping the parliamentary precinct has been a longstanding issue at the national legislature, where complaints about lack of space and facilities predate the blaze. But to date, plans for more offices, banquet rooms and MPs’ accommodation at the core of an expanded parliamentary precinct have effectively come to nought. A R387-million 2007 upgrade was ditched amid corruption claims. Plans emerging in 2011 only seem to have led to additional parking after the demolition of a building opposite the main gates. 

Security upgrade

But the current Parliament restoration project would also include “a much-needed upgrade of the security infrastructure and security”, with a masterplan aimed “at creating a precinct that is befitting the stature of the apex institution such as Parliament”, according to George.

He confirmed that Parliament’s own report into the fire, any security lapses and other issues was expected at the end of March.

It’s understood Parliament is finalising the appointment of its in-house security, or Parliamentary Protection Services (PPS), boss. And this comes with moving the PPS — it has been without a permanent boss since mid-2015 — to the Office of the Secretary to Parliament, from Household Services, to which the once standalone unit was demoted amid tensions in the parliamentary administration. 

It is against this background the SAPS took over much of parliamentary security. In particular, police leveraged the 14 September 2018 suicide of parliamentary manager Lennox Garane, who shot himself over the unrelenting bullying of a line manager.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Turning Parliament into just another secure government installation betrays SA’s democracy 

In 2018, all of Parliament was declared a National Key Point, according to Tuesday’s briefing. Previously, only the President’s Tuynhuys offices, 100 Plein Street ministerial offices and the House were national key points, in terms of the list the Right2Know Campaign obtained after court action in January 2015.

national assembly blaze

Firefighters rest after battling the National Assembly blaze on 3 January 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

When on 2 January 2022 the fire spread through Parliament buildings, only the SAPS was on guard duty. Parliament had withdrawn its PPS patrols over weekends and public holidays.

Three SAPS officials were before disciplinary proceedings by May 2022, according to a SAPS briefing to the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament. The homeless man arrested and charged with arson and treason in connection with the fire, Zandile Mafe, was refused bail and remains in custody pending his trial in the Western Cape High Court.

Addressing the Cape Town Press Club after Parliament’s restoration project briefing, Gwarube said it was simply not good enough, more than a year after the blaze.

“We are yet to see the outcome of the internal investigations, which shed light into what happened that day and why the fire was able to ravage through a large chunk of the parliamentary buildings.

“We still don’t know the motive or who ought to be held accountable for the many mitigation measures which never kicked into gear,” Gwarube said. DM

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