Suspect in Fire at South African Parliament to Appear in Court
CAPE TOWN — A day after a fire ripped through South Africa’s Houses of Parliament, books and bookshelves were still smoldering within the National Assembly building, officials said on Monday.
Those who saw the damage described the buildings of both the historic Old Assembly and the New Assembly as “gutted.” The cause of the fire is under criminal investigation, and one man is in custody, officials said.
The 49-year-old man was arrested on Sunday morning. As the fire burned and firefighters raced to the scene, security personnel spotted the man. He had gained unauthorized entry and was found to be carrying stolen property, the police said.
He will appear on Tuesday in a Cape Town magistrate’s court on charges of arson, theft and housebreaking, the police’s directorate for priority crime investigation said in a statement. The statement did not identify the suspect further.
Smoke began to rise above the building around 6 a.m. Sunday, said JP Smith, Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security. The fire was active in two distinct areas, raising suspicion among officials about why the buildings in between had not burned.
By the time the last firefighters withdrew on Monday morning, the interior of the National Assembly was “extensively destroyed by fire, water, heat and smoke,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Smith said the Parliament complex was severely damaged.The facade of the National Assembly building also had “major cracks,” he added. Forensic investigators were assessing the scale of the destruction, Mr. Smith said.
The fire spread from an office space on the third floor of a building adjacent to the old National Assembly building toward a gym and to rooftops.
No injuries or fatalities have been reported. Parliamentary officials said they were not aware of any sensitive documents that might have been affected by the fire. But offices belonging to lawmakers in the African National Congress as well as in two smaller opposition parties — the Good Party and the National Freedom Party — were among those badly damaged.
Parliament was not in session because it had been closed for the holidays. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address, the first major event of the year on the parliamentary calendar, is set to be held Feb. 10.
Cape Town is no stranger to fires, and wildfires on the slopes of its famed Table Mountain have had a devastating impact in recent years. Last year, a wildfire spread to the University of Cape Town, where it devoured the special collections library — home to one of the most expansive collections of first-edition books, films, photographs and other primary sources documenting the history of Southern Africa.