South Africa parliament fire: blaze under control, suspect charged

South Africa parliament fire: blaze under control, suspect charged
Parliament spokesman Moloto Mothapo said the roof of the National Assembly had collapsed. 'The entire chamber where the members sit... has burned down.'
3 min read
No casualties were reported from the blaze at South Africa's parliament [Xabiso Mkhabela/Anadolu Agency/Getty]

A fire that ravaged part of South Africa's parliament, engulfing its chamber and threatening national treasures, has been brought under control, firefighters said on Monday, as police confirmed that a 49-year-old man had been charged with starting the blaze.

Flames broke out at around 5am (0300 GMT) on Sunday in the oldest wing of the Cape Town complex, triggering an inferno that crews battled throughout the day.

No casualties were reported, but the damage was catastrophic.

"The fire was brought under control during the night," spokesman Jermaine Carelse said, adding that around 20 firefighters were still on the site.

The blaze began in the wood-panelled older part of the building - a section that houses South Africa's first parliament and some of the nation's most cherished artefacts.

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It then spread to the neighbouring new assembly, where legislators currently meet.

Parliament spokesman Moloto Mothapo said the roof of the National Assembly had collapsed.

"The entire chamber where the members sit... has burned down."

Suspected arson

President Cyril Ramaphosa told reporters at the scene on Sunday that a man had been held and that the building's sprinkler systems had apparently failed.

The Hawks elite police unit said a 49-year-old man would appear in court on Tuesday, charged with "housebreaking, arson" and damaging state property.

The parliament's presiding officers were to meet with Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille to take stock of the devastation.

Jean-Pierre Smith, Cape Town's mayoral committee member for safety and security, said the entire complex had suffered damage, both from the fire and the tonnes of water used to fight it.

As for the roof of the building's historic section, "it's gone," he said.

Completed in 1884, the historic section is where Parliament keeps treasures including around 4,000 heritage and artworks, some dating back to the 17th century.

The collection includes rare books and the original copy of the former Afrikaans national anthem "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika" ("The Voice of South Africa"), which was already damaged.

It also features a 120-metre-long (390-foot) Keiskamma tapestry, named after a river in the southeast of the country, that traces the history of South Africa from the first indigenous peoples, the San, to the historic democratic elections of 1994.

"The temperature in there is still around 100 degrees [Celsius, more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit], making it difficult to fully determine the true extent of damages," said Smith.

Second fire in a year

Around 70 firefighters were deployed on Sunday, some using a crane to spray water on the blaze.

Images broadcast on television had shown giant flames leaping from the roof.

The area was quickly secured, with a cordon stretching to a square where flowers were still displayed in front of the nearby St. George's Cathedral, where anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu's funeral took place on Saturday.

Cape Town has been home to South Africa's houses of parliament since 1910, when separate administrations formed a union under British dominion and became a predecessor to the modern South African republic.

The site includes the National Assembly and the upper house National Council of Provinces, while the government is based in Pretoria.

It was in parliament where South Africa's last apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, announced in 1990 plans to dismantle white-minority rule.

The complex consists of three sections, with the newer additions constructed in the 1920s and 1980s.

In March another fire also broke out in the older wings of parliament, but it was quickly contained.

Cape Town suffered another major fire in April, when a blaze on the famed Table Mountain which overlooks the city spread, ravaging part of the University of Cape Town's library holding a unique collection of African archives.