Johannesburg, Jan 2 (EFE).- A fire that broke out early Sunday morning in the South African Parliament building is still burning more than 12 hours after being detected with Cape Town emergency crews so far unable to prevent the collapse of parts of the structure.
“The roof has caught fire and the National Assembly building is also on fire,” a Cape Town emergency services spokesman said, adding that “The fire is not under control and cracks in the walls of the building have been reported.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa, after hastening to the scene to evaluate the damage for himself, said that all of South Africa was united in sadness over the destruction of the center of the country’s democracy, calling the blaze a “terrible and devastating event.”
After the emotional state funeral held on Saturday to bid farewell to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who died on Dec. 26 at age 90, South Africans woke on Sunday to find the social networks flooded with images of the huge flames and dense clouds of smoke rising above Parliament.
Authorities believe that the fire began in the oldest building in the complex, the Old Assembly, construction of which ended in 1884, later spreading to the newest wing where the National Assembly – the lower house of Parliament – meets and where the fire was still active on Sunday afternoon.
The local official responsible for security in Cape Town, Jean-Pierre Smith, said that the entire legislative building had suffered great damage from both smoke and water, not to mention the flames.
Specifically, the roof of the oldest section “collapsed,” along with the third floor of the building, where emergency services feared that the fire would spread rapidly because of the wooden interior decorating, hanging tapestries and curtains, although ultimately they were able to contain the flames.
Local authorities in Cape Town confirmed that no damage was suffered by the parliamentary library, which houses a significant collection of artworks.
According to Jermaine Carelse, the spokesman for the Cape Town Fire Rescue Service, emergency teams were notified of the fire about 6 am.
After an initial contingent of 36 firefighters tried unsuccessfully to put out the blaze and then calling for reinforcements, about 70 additional firefighters were deployed to the scene and “the situation remains fluid,” Carelse said.
This is the second fire to afflict the South African legislative complex within the past year, after a small blaze broke out in the Old Assembly area in March 2021, with firefighters being able to quickly extinguish it.
Regarding the potential link between the two incidents, the minister of public works and infrastructure and former Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille, told reporters that after-action reports on the March incident were being examined to analyze the progress – or lack thereof – on implementing the recommendations that were made at that time to prevent future fires.
According to local media, that report found several deficiencies regarding smoke detectors and security cameras, for example.
In that regard, in remarks to media outlets Sunday afternoon, De Lille revealed that not only were fire sensors delayed in detecting the blaze on Sunday but inside fire suppression sprinklers did not work because the water valve was closed.
Smith said that apparently the fire detection system in the building was “rather slow” in alerting the fire department. He added that “It is not possible to see whether (the old assembly section is) damaged. We hope it is not because it has so many historical artefacts, but you can’t gain access to it without breaking the doors down and we don’t want to do that.”
Meanwhile, the main public sector workers union, known as Nehawu and representing education and healthcare workers, among others, along with security employees at the Parliament, complained that because of budget cuts, personnel were not working at the site on weekends during the yearend holiday season.
Although the causes of the fire are not yet known, security forces arrested a suspect, age about 50, inside Parliament, police confirmed on the social networks.
The man, who was handed over to the elite police unit known as the Hawks, will be brought before a court on Tuesday on charges of arson, housebreaking and theft, according to Hawks spokesperson Thandi Mbambo.
Last April, Cape Town experienced another traumatic fire, when a blaze broke out on Table Mountain, one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, later spreading to the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus and destroying its historical Jagger Library, where thousands of valuable ancient books and manuscripts about the African continent were burned.