Fire In South African Parliament Raises Questions Over Responsibility

A large-scale fire broke out within the lower chamber of South Africa’s parliament this past Sunday, January 2nd. Incidentally, this occurred just days before the South African Parliament and President Ramaphosa received a report looking into corruption within the government of previous President Zuma. 

A 49-year-old man, Zandile Christmas Mafe, faces five charges, including explosives possession, arson and intent to steal laptops, documents and crockery. Mafe believes he is being “scapegoated” by the government, according to an interview in the New York Times, an attempt by the South African government to hide their inability to ensure building safety, according to Mafe. 

The fire caused widespread destruction, destroying the lower chamber, or National Assembly, and the roof of the Old Wing housing the upper chamber, or National Council of Provinces. Offices of the governing African National Congress, opposition parties and lawmakers’ offices were destroyed. The South African Parliament building, located in Cape Town, is almost 140 years old, with construction beginning in 1880. The history of the construction of the Parliament buildings spans the countries transition from a colony, to apartheid, to its current constitutional democracy. 

As the fire burned, firefighters quickly responded and acted on the scene, as the building sprinkler system failed to function properly. Parliamentarians among the opposition raised questions about how and why the sprinklers failed to function and called for video evidence of the suspect entering Parliament. In a three and a half-hour virtual conference call held among members of Parliament; important questions were raised on building safety protocols and the lack of department head for the Parliament Protection Service for almost six years, says the New York Times. 

Questions have also been raised about the suspect himself, Mafe. Tweets by Fikile Mbalula, the Minister of Transport, asked, “Why would a vagrant wake up and burndown parliament?” His lawyer, Luvuyo Godla, asserts he will be pleading not guilty while he remains in custody with minimal possibility of bail. 

Memories of the past summer of tension and rioting were present as crowds gathered outside Parliament. As investigations into the past president, Zuma’s corruption and charges for contempt of court arose in summer 2021, riots and looting broke out across South Africa. Distrust between South African citizens and the government has been brewing, and this past week’s fire continues conversations about the accountability of the South African government.