Devastating fire in SA parliament means State of the Nation to be held at different venue

A devastating fire that broke out at parliament early on Sunday morning ravaged the Old Assembly section of the legislature and collapsed the ceiling of the National Assembly, prompting the speaker to say February’s State of the Nation address by President Cyril Ramaphosa will have to be hosted elsewhere.

“I want to express our shock … but also our sadness,” speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said. “Our [task now] is to find an alternative venue where the president will address the South African public from … right now parliament is on fire, right now the National Assembly is on fire.”

JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security for Cape Town, described the Old Assembly wing as devastated by the blaze and said the roof of this historic part of the building had collapsed. The fire started in this section and spread to the new wing, where it caused the chamber ceiling to collapse.

“The Old Assembly is gutted. The roof area has caught alight and the National Assembly building is on fire too,” Smith said, confirming that by lunch time the fire was still not under control.

Mapisa-Nqakula said it was not clear how the fire swept from the old wing, along corridors linking it to the new wing. Early indications were that the fire began in offices above the Old Assembly and spread to the gymnasium housed in the upper part of this section.

Smith said emergency services had been unable to determine the full extent of the destruction caused by smoke and fire but it appeared the entire building had been extensively damaged.

Six hours after the first alert, there were 70 firefighters on the scene after reinforcements were brought in from different parts of the peninsula. Walls had cracked in the heat of the blaze, the fire services confirmed.

The Old Assembly chamber and the parliamentary library were believed to have been spared. However, because firefighters could not access the chamber, it could not be excluded that it had suffered water damage. There were concerns too about the safety of a large collection of valuable artworks housed in the basement of parliament.

According to Smith, fire services received the first call at 6.12am.

Though the legislature is a few blocks from Cape Town’s central fire station and firefighters were at the scene within minutes, according to Smith, the blaze spread through the upper floors of the Old Assembly and towards the so-called new wing, housing the National Assembly.

“The fire and rescue services have confirmed that they were already on scene when the fire detection alarms at parliament activated for the first time.“

The emergency services said no injuries had been reported.

Parliament is currently in recess and due to resume its work later this month.

Columns of smoke hung over the building and the city skyline, and roads around the precinct were closed.

Smith said it would be irresponsible to speculate about the cause of the fire but police investigators were at the scene.

In a statement, parliament confirmed that “investigations are underway by the relevant authorities”.

“The presiding officers of parliament are distressed by this incident and the extent of the damage caused thus far to the precincts of the seat of the national legislature. They have urged the relevant authorities to leave no stone unturned in establishing the cause of the fire.”

Ramaphosa is due to deliver the State of the Nation address on February 10.

In April 2021, a fire that began at Rhodes Memorial devastated parts of the University of Cape Town, including the library housing irreplaceable archives.

  • This report has been updated with additional information

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