Devastating fire revives at South African parliament

·4-min read

Smoke and flames re-emerged from the upper floors of South Africa's parliament on Monday hours after the blaze was declared under control, as police confirmed they had charged a man with starting the inferno that engulfed the building.

The blaze, which broke out at around 5 am (0300 GMT) on Sunday, was initially brought under control after a struggle that stretched into the night, with exhausted firefighters leaving the site to the cheers of onlookers and journalists.

But in the late afternoon on Monday, spokesman Jermaine Carelse said the fire had restarted in a part of the Cape Town complex -- the roof of the building housing the National Assembly.

The city's Fire and Rescue Service said on WhatsApp: "The wind has been getting steadily stronger and ignited the smouldering wood inside the roof void space, parts of which are not accessible for dousing or dampening."

Only a dozen firefighters were still deployed from the around 70 who had fought to tame the fire, and some 50 reinforcements were rushed in, using a crane lift to direct their hose.

No casualties have been reported, but the damage is catastrophic.

"The most damage is in national assembly that won't be used for months," Carelse said.

The blaze began in the wood-panelled older part of the complex -- a section that houses South Africa's first parliament and some of the nation's most cherished artefacts.

It then spread to the neighbouring new assembly, where legislators currently meet.

Parliament spokesman Moloto Mothapo said the roof of the National Assembly had collapsed.

"The entire chamber where the members sit... has burned down."

- Suspected arson -

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

The Hawks elite police unit said a 49-year-old man would appear in court on Tuesday, charged with "housebreaking, arson" and damaging state property.

The parliament's presiding officers met 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, said the entire complex had suffered damage, both from the fire and the tonnes of water used to fight it.

As for the roof of the building's historic section, "it's gone," he said.

Completed in 1884, the historic section is where parliament keeps treasures including around 4,000 heritage and artworks, some dating back to the 17th century.

The collection includes rare books and the original copy of the controversial former Afrikaans national anthem "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika" (The Voice of South Africa), which was already damaged.

It also features a Keiskamma tapestry, measuring 120 metres (390 feet) in length, that traces the history of South Africa from the first indigenous peoples, the San, to the historic democratic elections of 1994.

"The temperature in there is still around 100 degrees (Celsius, more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit), making it difficult to fully determine the true extent of damages," said Smith.

- Second fire in a year -

The area was quickly secured when the fire broke out on Sunday.

The security cordon stretched to a square where flowers were still displayed in front of St. George's Cathedral, where anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu's funeral took place on Saturday.

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-era president, FW de Klerk, announced in 1990 plans to dismantle white-minority rule.

The complex consists 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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