Firefighters battle new parliament fire

About an hour after government ministers and the presiding officers of parliament briefed the media on the devastating fire which broke out on Sunday at the National Assembly, a new blaze flared again on Monday afternoon.

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) confirmed at the weekend that a 49-year-old suspect had been arrested at the parliamentary precinct and would appear in court on Tuesday on charges of housebreaking, theft and arson. Police are investigating a security breach at the building.

Monday’s blaze was detected on the roof of the National Assembly building, parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said.

Parliament’s presiding officers said in a statement that the new fire was distressing but added that they “continue to be encouraged by the resilience, courage and bravery of the firefighters in their battle to bring the fire under complete control”. 

“The void beneath the roof sheeting of the National Assembly is on fire,” said Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service spokesperson Jermaine Carelse. Road closures were renewed around the area while 34 firefighters using six fire fighting appliances were battling the blaze.

Earlier on Monday the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Amos Masondo, told journalists that parliament’s library and museum, hosting various artworks and heritage objects including the Keiskamma Tapestry, had not been affected by the fire.

But the assembly chamber, where sittings are held and the State of the Nation address was to be hosted in February, was a blackened pit with wires dangling from a collapsed ceiling.

The Mail & Guardian reported earlier that fire services could not yet confirm whether the basement, where an extensive art collection is housed, had been damaged. Masondo, who said he was “devastated and deeply saddened” by the blaze, confirmed that “some important sections were saved” and “there’s no indication that we have lost relevant historical records”. 

A preliminary report on the cause of the inferno had been expected to be handed to the department of public works and infrastructure on Friday morning.

On Monday forensic teams tasked with determining the extent of the damage from the fire could not gain access to affected areas as temperatures inside parts of the building were nearly 100℃.  It was not yet clear how Monday’s new outbreak would affect the investigative team’s efforts to finalise its report.

During Monday’s media briefing, National Assembly speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula dismissed claims by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) that there were no security officers guarding parliament at the weekend. 

Nehawu alleged that parliament had suspended protection services on weekends due to financial constraints, but Mapisa-Nqakula said no such decision had been made.

“[In] my view and in the view of the presiding officers, it is totally irresponsible for the leadership of Nehawu … to give the impression to South Africans that this happened,” she added.

Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille, confirmed the surveillance cameras at parliament were in working condition but added it appeared that they were not being monitored by parliamentary security and the police at the time of the incident. 

Presiding officers of parliament and senior government officials were due to be briefed by the police and the head of the parliamentary protection services on Tuesday.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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