/ 7 January 2022

Parliament fire: attack or plain negligence?

Plumes of smoke: The statue of General Louis Botha seems to watch – either triumphantly or helplessly – as parliament burns behind it. (Carina Bruwer)

The fire at parliament started in the morning and by 9am on the second day of the new year the Old Assembly and National Assembly buildings of South Africa’s parliament were severely damaged. Was it an attack on our democracy or a reflection of the callowness of the national government? Many choose the latter. 

On Monday, 3 January the assembly chamber, where sittings are held and the State of the Nation address (Sona) 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. While speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s office was intact, others in this wing were severely damaged. 

What the fire left behind

The City of Cape Town’s fire and rescue services department spokesperson Jermaine Carelse told the Mail & Guardian 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. 

A new blaze flared again on Monday afternoon, causing further damage to the roof of the National Assembly building. The fire was finally contained on Wednesday morning. 

Fortunately, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chamber and offices, the parliament library, museum, artworks and the ground floor of the Old Assembly building have not been affected by the fire. It was also confirmed during the week that the Mace — a symbol signifying the authority and sitting of the National Assembly — has been retrieved without any damage. 

A report on the extent of the damage was expected on 7 January but the high temperatures at the fire scene might see the report only surface early the following week. 

“All of us are absolutely devastated,” says Samantha Graham-Maré, the Democratic Alliance MP responsible for public works and infrastructure.

“I’m like a child when I go to parliament. It is my favourite place to be, it’s my happy place. I love the environment. You are part of history. You are part of  the seat of democracy of South Africa, and to see that going up in ruins is absolutely heartbreaking”.

Pure negligence

Other MPs also expressed devastation and have begun asking questions about various reports handed to parliament regarding the safety of the building. 

Political analyst Ralph Matshekga argues the extent of the fire at parliament comes down to “just pure basic neglect. The state of derelict is quite astonishing.” 

Graham-Maré claims the department of public works was well aware of the problems at parliament, referring to the 2019 review of parliament’s prestige construction projects, yet nothing had been done. 

This included 13 maintenance projects which entailed safety and security measures within the parliamentary precinct. 

The department of public works and infrastructure told the joint standing committee on financial management in October 2019 that one of the projects “was the maintenance contract for security measures and access control in the parliamentary precinct”.

However, irregular expenditure was reported during the ongoing construction projects. It prompted Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille to commission an independent assessment by BDO auditors. 

The BDO report found delays in the electrical installations in the NCOP and office buildings in parliament, as well as routine maintenance and repairs to the Old Assembly building. 

It took them months to hand over the report to De Lille. She was only made aware of its finalisation after Graham-Maré raised it in parliament in September 2020. 

De Lille “has subsequently, according to her, given the report to the speaker in September 2021. But that still hasn’t come to our portfolio committee. I asked for a copy of the report and [De Lille] refused, saying that it had to be [with] the speaker first. They have sat on this,” Graham-Maré alleged. 

The fire flared up twice before being extinguished on 5 January.

The two maintenance stories 

Addressing the joint standing committee on the financial management of parliament on Tuesday 4 January, the national director of public works and infrastructure, Thembeka Kolele, stressed that maintenance was up to date prior to the fire.

She said work had been done before the 2021 Sona and systems were checked after another fire on 16 March 2021. She added that parliament’s sprinkler system was “fully functional” by October 2021 and on 21 December systems were checked after a power failure that affected the city centre and Atlantic Seaboard.

Contrasting Kolele — who said work had been done before the 2021 Sona — the City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for community safety and security, JP Smith, said the city draws up a fire safety inspection report on parliament before the annual Sona. The report is then presented to parliament, noting any problems that would place the building and the people visiting the building at risk.

“If I look at the two most recent years, the report is almost identical, addressing the same defects and the same problems … there is a persistent pattern of noncompliance and negligence,” claims Smith. 

Smith told the M&G that on Wednesday, following a brief walk through the fire scene, it became clear that the automated fire doors in parliament were latched. Instead of the doors closing to limit the fire, the doors remained open, causing the fire to continue. 

The fire safety reports were handed over to Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis on Wednesday, for him to decide what to do with them. 

The city’s reports do not hold the national government accountable, as the city’s by-laws do not legally apply to them, explains Smith. He adds that due to the national government’s disregard of the local by-laws, the national state’s assets have become a liability for the local government. 

Irate head of parliament 

Instead of establishing calm amid widespread rumours of the fire being “an attack on the country’s democracy”, speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula seemed to interpret questions during a media briefing as a direct personal attack. 

Parliament’s presiding officers and De Lille addressed the media on Monday afternoon to assure the public all systems at parliament at the time of the fire were intact. 

However, Mapisa-Nqakula got defensive when the media asked whose responsibilty the fire was, and whether it was an attack on the country’s democracy. 

“I will not take responsibility for anything that you are suggesting, which is that there might be charges of treason for me as speaker because parliament burns down. However, I am one person who came out yesterday [Sunday] and said any attack on parliament, is an attack on the democracy of the people of South Africa,” responded Mapisa-Nqakula. 

In an effort to address the possibility of an alleged attack, she replied: “If indeed in the report, which will be presented to us by the police, there are indications of a deliberate attack on parliament, obviously, all of us together would have to appreciate the fact that … democracy is under threat, somebody is threatening our democracy. And what do you do? You act accordingly”.

Responding to questions about whether parliament had — in general — “dropped the ball”, the speaker emphasised that she had only been in her position for two-and-a-half months, adding: “Up until now, there is nothing which suggests to me that as parliament there was a dropping of the ball because in the reports given to us together with the minister of public works this morning there wasn’t [any] such indication.”

One person charged so far

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) arrested Zandile Christmas Mafe, 49, at the parliamentary precinct on Sunday 2 January. 

Mafe, who has lived for six years in Site B in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, appeared in the Cape Town magistrate court on Tuesday (4 January) on five charges including housebreaking, arson, destroying essential infrastructure and for being in the possession of explosives. 

Mafe pleaded not guilty.

Outside court, Mafe’s defence lawyer Luvuyo Godla said his client was made a “scapegoat for failures of executives and legislators”.

Magistrate Zamekile Mbalo granted the state’s request to postpone the matter by seven days to determine the extent of the damage of the fire. The matter will proceed on 11 January. 

Meanwhile this is the second fire in parliament in less than a year. The assembly, now completely gutted, would have cost more than R9-million to repair after the fire in March last year. These costs included building, electrical as well as mechanical repairs.

— Eunice Stoltz