Thursday, May 26, 2022

Huge fire devastates South African parliament

The cause of the fire is unknown, but an investigation has been opened and an individual held.

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A huge fire destroyed a large part of South Africa’s parliament on Sunday, as police said a suspect will appear in court in the week and firefighters struggled to bring the blaze completely under control.

Dozens of crews battled throughout the day to extinguish the fire which broke out at about 0300 GMT in the parliament complex’s oldest wing, which was completed in 1884 and has wood-panelled rooms.

As day dawned, thick plumes of black smoke could be seen enveloping the historic building’s imposing Victorian facade.

Officials said the entire part housing the National Assembly had been destroyed.

“The entire chamber where the members sit… has burned down,” parliamentary spokesman Moloto Mothapo said, adding that the blaze had still not been extinguished and fires had apparently been sparked in two separate areas of the complex.

He said the roof of the National Assembly had collapsed and that the fire was “so intense” in that part of the building that firefighters had been forced to withdraw.

No casualties were reported.

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

But he added that despite the damage “the work of parliament will carry on”.

Police said later a suspect had been detained.

“A man has been arrested inside the parliament, he’s still being interrogated. We have opened a criminal case. He has been arrested and will appear in court on Tuesday,” police spokesman Thandi Mbambo said.

The parliament building houses a collection of 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.

The full extent of the damage was still being assessed with more than 70 firefighters still at the scene.

The parliament’s presiding officers would meet on Monday 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, told reporters the entire complex had suffered extensive water and fire damage and “nothing” was left of the part of the historic part.

This is where Parliament kept treasures including around 4,000 heritage and art works, some dating back to the 17th century.

These include the 120m-long Keiskamma tapestry, named after a river in the southeast of the country, tracing the history of South Africa from the first indigenous peoples, the San, to the historic democratic elections of 1994.

After ravaging the older wing of the building, the flames spread to newer parts of the complex which are currently in use.

Metres from Tutu’s burial

A team of firefighters who were first to arrive at the scene battled the flames for several hours before being forced to retreat and call for reinforcements.

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

Inside the rooms, fine showers of grey ash fell from the ceiling to the floor, which was already littered with debris.

Emergency services said they feared the fire could spread swiftly through the old rooms, which are decorated with wood, thick carpets and curtains.

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

The area around the fire in the upmarket neighbourhood was quickly cordoned off.

The cordon stretched 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.

After a simple, no-frills mass, with a cheap coffin – according to the famously modest Tutu’s instructions – his ashes were interred in the cathedral on Sunday.

Second fire in a year

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 president FW de Klerk announced in 1990 plans to dismantle the brutal white-minority regime.

The houses of parliament consist 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.

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