Ramaphosa speaks on 'devastating' blaze at South African parliament building
President Ramaphosa at scene of South African Parliament fire, Cape Town. Photo: Reuters keyframe

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called the fire today (Sunday 2 January) at SA’s Parliament in Cape Town a “terrible and devastating event”; and said a man is being questioned in custody.

SA parliament fire cape town 2
Speaker Mapisa-Nqakula is saddened by the fire at Parliament. Photo: SA Parliament (Twitter)

Speaking from the scene, President Ramaphosa said: “Well, this is devastating news, it’s a terrible and devastating event. Particularly after we gave the Arch (Desmond Tutu) what I would call the best send-off yesterday. Yesterday was a day crowned with celebration, a day crowned with sending off our beloved Archbishop and to wake up (to) the devastating news of the burning down of the National Assembly, of parliament, is just really a terrible set-back to what we were basking in yesterday.”

Sprinkler System and Fire Alarm Didn’t Work

The President said that it appears the “sprinkler system did not work as it was supposed to”, and Cape Town’s Safety and Security mayoral member, Jean-Pierre Smith, added that the parliament’s fire alarm only rang when firefighters were already on site.

Ramaphosa said that thanks to the City of Cape Town’s firefighters arriving so quickly, they “saved a very important national asset of our government”.

He said an investigation will be undertaken into not only what caused the fire at SA’s “national key asset”, but how it started in the Old Assembly and then moved to the National Assembly.

Fire suspiciously in two different sections

Smith said the crime scene investigation staff from the South African Police Service (SAPS) are currently on the hydraulic platform “to have a look because the fire is at the moment going in two different sections, with the section in the middle not ablaze. So they will have to determine how the fire spread from the one blaze to the second blaze because there’s two very distinct areas where the fire is currently burning.”

This is the second fire at SA’s parliament in less than a year. In March there was a blaze caused by an electrical fault.

Suspect arrested

President Ramaphosa said: “I believe somebody is being held right now and they are being questioned. But we need to go a lot deeper, a lot deeper into how this type of event can take place and what measures we will need to take going forward. But for now, I think we should be grateful that the National Assembly, parliament, has not been reduced to ashes and to the floor.”

SA parliament fire cape town 2
Photo: Twitter / SA Parliament

Extensive damage to SA Parliament

The blaze (or blazes) have caused extensive damage, collapsing the roof of the old building and gutting an entire floor (the third floor) in one building, including office space and the gymnasium, with firefighters partially containing the blaze after several hours.

The blaze erupted at the parliament complex just before 6 a.m. local time on Sunday, with flames bursting from the roof of a building and a plume of smoke that could be seen from miles away.

Patricia de Lille: Sad day for democracy

Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia De Lille told reporters there were no reports of any injuries. The cause of the blaze was not yet known, she said, adding that it is a “sad day for our democracy… because Parliament is the home of our democracy”.

The parliamentary complex, some 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 known 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, which 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.

National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told reporters that Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address to a joint session of parliament would go ahead as planned on Feb.10 but an alternative venue would have to be used.

“It is sad that this has happened because indeed the parliament is a national key point and this is an appropriate place where the president should address the nation from,” Mapisa-Nqakula said.

President Ramaphosa said: “Our Arch would have been devastated as well because this is a place that he not only supported, he prayed for and wanted to see as the repository of the democracy that he worked so hard for. But not withstanding the damage that has been caused to the National Assembly, the work of parliament will carry on.”

WATCH SA Parliament Fire

WATCH President Ramaphosa on having a city and province that works:

(Reporting by Shafiek Tassiem and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town and Nqobile Dludla in Johannesburg. Additional reporting by Jahnavi Nidumolu in BengaluruWriting by Neil Fullick and Nqobile Dludla Editing by Kim Coghill and Frances Kerry / Reuters and Jenni Baxter/SAPeople)