South Africa Parliament Chamber Destroyed by Fire

3rd January 2021: A massive fire caused severe damages to the Houses of Parliament in the city of Cape Town, South Africa. Firefighters extinguished the blaze by working for hours. A man, who is not a parliamentary employee, has been arrested for the fire. He will appear in court on Tuesday and face the charges of theft, housebreaking, and arson, as per the police.

President Cyril Ramaphosa promised to continue the parliament’s work and called the incident a ‘devastating and terrible event.’ Camera footage from the scene exhibited huge flames coming out of the roof of the building, with a plume of black smoke filling the sky.

The fire quickly spread to the National Assembly chamber, which is the parliament’s lower house after starting on the third floor offices, officials mentioned. Nobody was injured as the parliament is not currently under operation owing to the Christmas and New Year holidays.

However, the building houses more than thousands of treasures, such as important works of art, photographs, and historic books. The concern regarding the unique Keiskamma Tapestry has grown rapidly among the officials owing to this fire. It is 120m (394ft) long and includes the entire documentation of South Africa’s history.

According to the police, the suspect had entered the building through a back window. He is anticipated to be charged under the National Key Points Act as it helps in protecting the areas of strategic importance.

Moreover, a member of the Cape Town mayoral committee for safety and security named Jean-Pierre Smith said, “It appears that in addition to police, the private security forces used by the parliament were not being paid overtime and were not on duty.”

The parliament stated that confirmed “significant damage” to the New Assembly Wing of the building. This wing consists of the National Assembly chamber where lawmakers sit. It also mentioned that some of the offices have been “severely gutted.”

The fire started at around 06:00 local time (04:00 GMT). It was the day after Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s state funeral was held near the parliament at St George’s Cathedral. President Ramaphosa had visited the scene and he declared that the fire was a “terrible setback to what we were basking in yesterday”.

He further praised the firefighters for responding to the fire in minutes and stated that the building’s sprinkler system had not functioned properly during the incident. He also uttered that the parliament’s fire alarm was only activated when firefighters were already present on the site.

Talking to the reporters about the damages, he said, “The roof above the old assembly hall is completely gone and the damages inside the old chamber is yet to be investigated. We cannot gain access to it without breaking down the doors, and we don’t want to do that. We hope that the old chamber is not damaged too much as it contains a large number of historical artefacts.”

Besides, the fire and rescue service officials said that it took hours to douse the fire completely as there were wooden floors and carpets in the building. President Ramaphosa expressed his sadness at the destruction of the home of their democracy.

Geordin Hill-Lewis, Cape Town’s Mayor, highlighted that the city’s Council Chamber is set to be made available as an alternative to the parliament till the damages are recovered. This is considered to be the second fire in the building, as the first one had occurred in March due to an electrical fault.

The Houses of Parliament have three sections, with the newer sections built in the 1920s and 1980s. The oldest section was developed in 1884.

By Ulhas