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Why National Assembly burned: SAPS asleep, Parliamentary Protection Services sent off duty, broken firefighting systems

Why National Assembly burned: SAPS asleep, Parliamentary Protection Services sent off duty, broken firefighting systems
Firefighters battle the blaze that engulfed the National Assembly in Parliament on Monday, 3 January 2022. The blaze began in the older part of the building and spread to the new assembly in the afternoon. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

If the Parliamentary Protection Services had been on duty, the 2022 blaze that gutted the National Assembly would not have happened, according to Secretary to Parliament, Xolile George, who released a summary of the national legislature’s fire investigation on Wednesday.

The flames and smoke billowing from the National Assembly on 2 January 2022 were seen across the Cape Town City Bowl, and the sirens of fire engines and other emergency services cut through the Sunday quiet.

As Daily Maverick reported at the time, the Parliamentary Protection Services (PPS) had not been on duty. They had been withdrawn from working nights and over weekends and public holidays during the festive season.

national assembly fire

Firefighters battle the blaze engulfing the National Assembly in Parliament on Monday, 3 January 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Withdrawing the in-house parliamentary protection is the outcome of leaving the PPS without permanent bosses since July 2015 when Zelda Holtzman and Motlatsi Mokgalta were suspended in ructions in the parliamentary administration – and demoting the Parliamentary Protection Services from a stand-alone division into a unit in household services.

On Wednesday, Secretary to Parliament, Xolile George, responding to a direct question, said, “Do we think Parliament would still be existing and standing… had there been staff of Parliament not on forced leave? The answer is, yes.”

The absence of the PPS “did contribute significantly to the vulnerability of Parliament”, he added.

As the national legislature had been left to be protected by the SA Police Service, slip-ups like sleeping on duty fell to them. Or, as the report summary released put it: “Lapses in perimeter monitoring were identified, including an incident where a SAPS officer tasked with monitoring a motion-detection camera had been asleep when an intruder breached the fence. The investigation raised questions regarding SAPS patrols during that period…”

But the summary of the report by an unnamed independent forensic investigator raises questions – details remain unknown and uncheckable.

“On legal advice, the report will not be released,” said George.

Five parliamentary officials have been identified, but left unnamed, as having to answer on the security front for the fire at Parliament. However, it’s public record that the memo withdrawing the PPS over the festive season was signed in December 2021 by then-acting Secretary to Parliament, Baby Tyawa, now retired.

national assembly fire

Firefighters battle the blaze that engulfed the National Assembly at Parliament on Monday, 3 January 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Not naming anyone at this stage was important for their privacy and fairness in the unfolding internal proceedings, was about as much as George was prepared to say. 

Other engagements are also unfolding regarding findings relating to the SAPS and the Department of Public Works, which is responsible for the upkeep of state buildings. 

On Wednesday, it remained unclear if the SAPS had updated Parliament on the “departmental investigations” against four police officials over the fire, as SAPS management told MPs on 21 January 2022. 

They remained unnamed but were identified as the Protection and Security Service relief commander, two police officials on duty to monitor CCTV on the police surveillance system, and one working the parliamentary camera monitors.

The SAPS presentation described the events of 2 January 2022: “Members of the PSS (Protection and Security Services) noticed smoke coming from the National Assembly area. Upon investigation and questioning the suspect… Zandile Christmas Mafe was arrested for trespassing.”

The trial of Mafe, against whom the State added charges of treason, continues to play out in the Western Cape High Court, including psychological evaluations that found him unfit to stand trial.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Alleged Parliament arsonist Zandile Mafe rejects psychiatric panel findings that he is not fit to stand trial

At Parliament, the SAPS effectively leveraged the fire to step up the taking over of security with a so-called implementation plan on the back of the hamstrung PPS. This included ad hoc fencing, rolls of razor wire and police vehicles parked at all gates, now closed and padlocked. It took the City of Cape Town months to secure the reopening of the Company’s Garden gate and its walkway, an important green lung in the city centre to the rear of Parliament.

The SAPS was approached for comment on the report summary but had not responded by publication.

national assembly fire

Smoke from Parliament over central Cape Town on 3 January 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Crucially, the fire was able to spread the way it did due to a lack of proper maintenance and failure to ensure compliance with building codes and fire prevention basics – all of which Public Works is ultimately responsible for.

“The investigation revealed pervasive non-compliance with fire regulations and requirements across multiple facets, including smoke detectors, fire alarm panels, emergency notification systems, sprinkler systems and evacuation route planning,” said the published summary.  

Much of what was outlined as recommendations in this summary is apparently being implemented.

On the security side, a PPS boss was appointed in early September. Security upgrades, particularly raising the perimeter fence, and joint security planning, were reportedly under way. On the building side, fire safety measures are now being checked and fixed.

Parliament’s reconstruction after the fire, now finally under way, will be completed by late 2025 with a R2-billion price tag. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    A burnt out Parliament through incompetence, lack of maintenance and capacity, failure to set and maintain standards, laziness and corruption, is apt symbol of ANC rule.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    slip-ups like sleeping on duty fell to them.

    …if someone ever attacks South Africa on a rainy day we’re doomed. It’s literally guaranteed they won’t meet any opposition other than weeds in our army bases. The guards will certainly be sleeping or hiding from the rain.

    …SANDF is now just another broken SOE.

  • Vincent Britz says:

    R2 billion price tag???? The FNB stadium cost R3,3 billion to build from the ground up.

    It’s not like we building a new parliament from the ground up! Guess it’s the norm that the corrupt ANC government is over spending again on just reconstruction work. And you can be guaranteed that the work will go to some one that is connected with a minister or even the president.

    We as South African are FK if we don’t stand together and get those corrupt ANC gangster out.

    • Janine Stephen says:

      It is a terrifying figure. But parliamentary seating vs stadium seating are rather different. And anyone who knows and loves those buildings would like to see restoration of the historic interiors be part of the budget.

  • Gregory Scott says:

    Are those pigeons or vultures circling Parliament in the picture above?

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Say it isn’t so! Sounds like incompetence, dereliction of duty and questionable budget allocations may have led to this. I just can’t believe it and I’m sure I’m as shocked as our cosplay President must be.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    It seems this report (that they want to hide) is the summary of the reasons offered from DF Malan to PW Botha why majority government is not the answer.

    • Wendy Dewberry says:

      I’m not sure your single arrow comment deserves a reply, but to me it’s screaming for its bow and target!

      What your comment is advocating is autocratic style leadership. That’s your target.
      You can have that target if you keep people oppressed, poor, with poor education. That’s your bow.

      For most people, the target of a democratic participative governance is more modern, but it requires a government that understands the necessity for good “accessible for all” education.

      Sadly, South Africa has not ever pursued that. I guess the leaders all thought along the lines of your comment which has kept our nation back from becoming the vibrant wealthy county is has all the potential for. Very sad for every one of us. You and me too.

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Just like our country – public servants sleeping whilst the country is burning down!!

  • Richard Robinson says:

    Another day of no accountability in the Ineptocracy …

  • Penelope Meyer says:

    Unbelievable. Total incompetence has led to the destruction of an irreplacable heritage resource, and all that has happened is that they have had an enquiry. Meanwhile no action has been taken at all to restore the building. One year and ten months later. DPW is a disgrace.

  • Tim Price says:

    Yet another reminder why we need regime change in this lovely country of ours.

  • heinlesch14 says:

    How on earth is no one charged to appear in the courts so that they can be charged for total negligence and sleeping on duty. O yes they are ANC cadres enjoying immunity from prosecusion. And so the C ANC ER rules.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    Working on a high end cost of R 25,000 per m2 for aground up project (which is for top grade head office space) that is app 80 ,000 m2. It is time for our politicians to come down to earth and manage what the purse can offer which for the quality of politicians we have should be C-grade or at most B-grade

  • Geoff Woodruff says:

    What happened to the parliament building is just another symptom of the malaise that is the ANC. PW Botha and FW de Klerk and their ilk may not have been the most popular of South Africans but it’s probably safe to say that the destruction of such a famous and important building would have been unthinkable in their time.

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