A man has been arrested inside the South African parliament after a huge fire severely ravaged the Parliament buildings in Cape Town.
A police spokesperson said that the man was facing charges of arson, housebreaking and theft, and would appear in court on Tuesday.
On Sunday, a fire broke out at the South African parliament, causing extensive damage, collapsing the roof and gutting an entire floor in one building.
Firefighters are reported to have been working for hours to contain the blaze and officials said the sprinkler system may have been tampered with and so did not work.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa dubbed the disaster a “terrible and devastating event”, and promised that parliament’s work would continue.
He also lauded the firefighters for saving a “very important national asset of our government”.
The suspect, who according to a parliament statement was a man in his 50s, has been handed over to an elite police unit called the Hawks.
“It’s the role of the Hawks to investigate any attack on political institutions,” Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia De Lille said.
No injuries have been reported from the fire that broke out early Sunday morning.
De Lille said the cause of the blaze was not yet known. She added that a report earlier received confirmed that a standard maintenance fire drill had been conducted just before parliament closed for the Christmas and New Year holidays and everything including the sprinklers was working.
“What was discovered this morning is that somebody has closed one of the valves and so then there was no water to trigger that automatic sprinkler system coming on,” De Lille said, adding that CCTV footage confirmed that somebody was in the building from the early hours of the morning.
SOUTH AFRICA’S PARLIAMENT
The parliamentary complex, part of which dates back to 1884, consists of a cluster of buildings. The National Assembly, or lower House of Parliament, is situated in what is referred to as the New Wing.
The upper house, or National Council of Provinces (NCOP), is located in what is called the Old Wing or Old Assembly. It is also used for committee meetings.
“The fire has been contained in the Old Wing. Firefighters are currently trying to control the fire in the New Wing, where the fire has affected the National Assembly Chamber,” parliament said in a statement.
Jean-Pierre Smith, a Cape Town mayoral committee member responsible for safety and security, said parliament’s fire alarm only rang when firefighters were already on site.
By afternoon smoke had subsided partially after billowing for hours from the roof and entrance of the National Assembly. However, City of Cape Town fire services head Jermaine Carelse said the fire was still active, and was now concentrated on the first and third floor.
The fire was the second at the parliament in less than a year. In March 2021, there was a blaze sparked by an electrical fault.
“It is egregious that such a thing happened in the first place, there must be no question about it. Whether it was a result of security breaches, which may be apparent to some people, we don’t know,” Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Lechesa Tsenoli said.
According to National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address to a joint session of parliament would proceed as planned on Feb.10 but an alternative venue would have to be used.