Fire Ravages South Africa’s Historic Parliament Complex
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — A major fire ripped through South Africa’s 138-year-old Parliament complex on Sunday, gutting offices and causing some ceilings to collapse at a site that has hosted some of the country’s pivotal moments. A plume of smoke rising high above Cape Town, South Africa’s southern capital city, was a sign that firefighters were unable to control the fire.
Around 70 firefighters were still battling the fire hours after it started in the early morning, Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Jermaine Carelse said. A crane was used to lift them up and spray water onto the fire from above. There have been no reports of injuries and Parliament had closed its doors for the holidays.
Visiting the scene, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said a person was “being held and is being questioned” by police in connection with the blaze. A 51-year old man was later detained by police.
“The fire is currently in the National Assembly chambers,” Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille told reporters as smoke billowed behind her from the roof of the historic white building with grand entrance columns. “This is a very sad day for democracy, for Parliament is the home of our democracy.”
“We have not been able to contain the fire in the National Assembly,” she added. “Part of the ceilings have collapsed.”
Officials claim that the fire originated in the Old Assembly building. This was constructed in 1884. The Old Assembly housed the South African parliament but it is now being used for office space. It then spread to the older National Assembly building in 1980s which houses the Parliament.
Both buildings have striking white façades with elaborate roof linings and magnificent columns. Authorities were concerned about the possibility of extensive smoke and flame damage. There were also fears that priceless artifacts inside, including a manuscript where the composer first wrote some lyrics for South Africa’s national anthem, would be lost forever.
Carelse advised that the buildings could collapse.
“The bitumen on the roof is even melting, an indication of the intense heat. There have been reports of some walls showing cracks, which could indicate a collapse,” the News24 website quoted Carelse as saying.
J.P. Smith, the Cape Town official in charge of safety and security, said at least one floor of the Old Assembly building was “gutted” and its entire roof had collapsed. According to Smith, firefighters now focus their efforts on saving the National Assembly building.
While the Old Assembly building was closely connected to South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history, the National Assembly building was where former President F.W. At the 1990 opening of Parliament, de Klerk rose and declared that he was releasing Nelson Mandela from jail and had ended apartheid rule by white minorities. It electrified the country, and it reverberated throughout the world.
Carelse stated that security guards reported the fire around 6:45 a.m. on Sunday. The 35 firefighters who were initially present quickly requested reinforcements. Cape Town activated its Disaster Coordinating Team to respond to major emergencies. The area was cordoned off by police, who also closed all roads.
De Lille stated that an investigation into the causes of the fire was under way. Police were looking at video and interviewing the suspect arrested at the precinct.
Parliament speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula cautioned against speculation that it was a deliberate attack on South Africa’s seat of democracy.
“Until such a time that a report has been furnished that there was arson, we have to be careful not to make suggestions that there was an attack,” she said.
Ramaphosa and many of South Africa’s top politicians were in Cape Town for the funeral Saturday of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu at St. George’s Cathedral, about a block away from the Parliament.
South Africans saw the fire as an additional blow after they said goodbye to Tutu, and watched their Parliament go up in flames.
“It’s just really a terrible setback,” Ramaphosa said. “The Arch (Tutu) would’ve been devastated as well. This is a place he supported and prayed for.”
South Africa is home to three capital cities. Cape Town, home to Parliament, is South Africa’s legislative capital. Pretoria, the administrative capital of government offices is located there. Bloemfontein, the judicial capital is home to the Supreme Court.
Cape Town has been the victim of arson attacks in the past. A huge wildfire on the slopes of Cape Town’s famed Table Mountain last year spread to buildings below and destroyed part of a historic library at the University of Cape Town as well as other structures. The fire started intentionally, according to an investigation.