Parliament fire contained, crews airing gutted National Assembly

On Monday morning, four fresh firefighting crews were brought in to ventilate what remains of Parliament’s National Assembly building after a fire that devastated the legislature was finally brought under control around 8am.

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. 

Around it, the staircases leading to the offices on upper floors were skeletons, and the imposing marble and granite triple-height foyer was scarred and water-logged.

Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s office was intact, but the others in this wing were severely damaged, the City of Cape Town’s fire and rescue services department spokesperson Jermaine Carelse said.

“This will not be rebuilt quickly, it is going to take time,” he said of the damage.

He said the members’ restaurant near the National Assembly, with windows overlooking the gardens of Tuynhuys, suffered extensive damage and posed a particular challenge for fire crews, as it had bullet-proof windows that trapped the heat of the blaze.

“We had to find a way to break some of the windows because the heat made it very, very difficult to work. After 15 minutes, the officers were exhausted and we had to rotate them.”

Carelse confirmed that the top floors of the Old Assembly section, where the fire started in the early hours of Sunday before sweeping along a corridor to the new wing, were gone. Here the chamber itself had suffered mainly water damage. 

The parliamentary library, located near the National Council of Provinces, escaped damage, but the fire services could not confirm that the same applied to the parliamentary basement, where an extensive art collection is housed.

The fire services department hoped that they could finally withdraw from the scene in the afternoon.

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) confirmed that a 49-year-old suspect arrested on Sunday at the parliamentary precinct would appear in court on Tuesday (4 January) on charges of house-breaking, theft and arson.

It was not clear at this stage whether police were looking for accomplices.

Mapisa-Nqakula  and the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Amos Masondo cautioned against “speculation and encouraged everyone to afford the law enforcement authorities space to investigate and provide the much-needed conclusive information”. 

Meanwhile, parliament gave assurances it would limit possible disruptions to the business of the legislature following the fire. It said President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address and the tabling of the national budget next month would still go ahead. These events are likely to take place at a different venue. 

Mapisa-Nqakula and Masondo were both expected to meet with officials including Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille on Monday to discuss the fire.

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