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Our Burning Assembly: South Africa doesn’t have its very own Guy Fawkes; it has Mr Incompetence


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Efforts to find a culprit for the fire at the Houses of Parliament have led to a round of finger-pointing that is of little value when the fundamental issue is that we were let down by official incompetence once again. In the wake of the disaster, restoration of this richly symbolic site must be ensured so that, as a nation, we are able to retain and reflect on our collective heritage, history and memory which exists uniquely in this place.

The year was 1605 when the Gunpowder Plot failed in London. The plan was to blow up the Houses of Parliament as a prelude to a popular revolt. Is the man who was arrested soon after the fires erupted in Cape Town at our own Houses of Parliament, our very own Guy Fawkes? I think not.

As in July with the attempted coup no, failed insurrection, no, massive looting by criminal elements, or intelligence failure we find ourselves yet again grappling with terminologies. It’s arson. No, it’s electrical. No, it’s the wind. Was it three men or one man? No! Should it be the president speaking to the media on this matter, or must it be the Speaker of the House? After all, he’s not a member of Parliament. Is it true that there was an agreement to cease employing night-shift workers or not?

The finger-pointing has commenced. 

The valve for the sprinkler system was shut off, why? Who is ultimately responsible for the parliamentary precinct? It’s a National Key Point, whatever that means in this day and age. Is it the responsibility of the incompetent SA Police Service, or a private security firm? One wonders. 

Was the CCTV in working order and was there a person manning the control room? All the effort to point the correct finger is useless because the actual culprit of the January 2022 Parliament fire is none other than Mr Incompetence.

Incompetence of the highest order is responsible for this disaster. What makes anyone think our public servants can manage and run Parliament when they have shown us all that they are incompetent and cannot run municipalities. Allowing the degradation of infrastructure whether for water, energy, roads or rail – and the list goes on – is a particular favourite of the governing ANC. So, what makes us think the sprinkler system was working, the CCTV system was working, and that fire hazard protocols were being observed at our most prized historical infrastructure, namely the SA Parliament buildings? 

Built in 1875, this National Heritage Site has Grade 1 National Heritage status, the highest designation set by the SA Heritage Resources Agency. The rich history of these buildings must not be forgotten and must certainly not be allowed to be burnt out of our collective memories. It was in this precinct that the Slave Lodge operated during slavery in the Cape Colony. It was here that apartheid laws were promulgated and it was here that both slavery and apartheid were ultimately defeated. The signing of the Constitution of the Republic happened in these hallowed halls. It was this Parliament that experienced the labour pains and gave birth to our young democracy in 1994. These walls saw the repealing of apartheid laws and the signing of historic laws protecting women, children and the LGBTQ+ community.

So, if there is any proposal for Parliament to move out of the Western Cape, those advocating it must think again. We are not going to relocate Parliament and the history it has borne witness to just because it is convenient and cost-effective to do so.

No! Heritage, history and memory are important elements that shape a nation. And in these Houses of Parliament there are plenty of the above. The assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd is another among so many more. Instead of seeing this as a disaster, Mr President, please take this opportunity to assure the nation that we will restore our Houses of Parliament to its former glory with a few modern modifications. Please make a public plea to the private sector to also contribute to the restoration project, in the same vein as the French government did when it rallied private citizens to come to its aid when Notre Dame Cathedral burnt. French President Emmanuel Macron set a date for when the cathedral restoration would be finished. He then launched a fundraising campaign which brought in pledges of more than €1-billion. 

Please do the same here, Mr President. We might surprise you as South Africans, especially here in the Western Cape. Our national symbols are a constant reminder of who we are as a people and as such, we must protect them at all cost. 

As for the upcoming State of the Nation Address, I think it should be held in the Cape Town City Hall. Let us be all we can be, President Ramaphosa. 

Just two months after the devastating Cape Town mountain fires we saw scaffolding going up at the University of Cape Town, which became a construction site – rightly so, because education for our next generation takes precedence. The national legislature must be able to continue its indispensable work of safeguarding our democracy, so let the restoration begin.

Let’s put aside the finger-pointing, let’s forget about possible arson plots and let’s just show the nation that, for once, we can get something done competently in the shortest possible time frame. 

There was no gunpowder plot, nor is there our very own Guy Fawkes, just sheer incompetence all round. DM


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  • Dr Know says:

    Yet some Guy Fawked up our parliament, just after Christmas.

    • Charles Parr says:

      Hahahaaa. Except it was some government employees that knew Fawked All about what their jobs entailed.

      • Graeme de Villiers says:

        Oh, for Fawkes sakes…. isn’t it obviously pointless by now to make impassioned pleas via public discourse to this man? He isn’t listening, reading or paying any attention.
        And he’s about to express his shock at the Zondo report…

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    Were this a conspiracy of sabotage, one could be sure that it would exploit organisational weaknesses, and make it look like the work of a single stooge.
    Was the purpose of the article to distract from such a possibility?

  • Malan van Rensburg says:

    Any side-bets on how long it is going to take to repair the damage and Parliament re-opens in the HoP ? I am pessimistic / realistic :- 10 years !

    • Charles Parr says:

      As you know too well, it will take that long to sort out who get the contracts by which time they might have no say in the matter.

  • Piet Van Dee Linde says:

    The contract of rebuilding of parliament will be given to a kader and will cost billions, and will most likely be falling apart before its finished.

  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    Let’s be honest. Would you let this government run your school tuck shop?

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