South African parliament

South Africa politicians insist government should be business-as-usual despite parliament fire

On New Year’s Day they absorbed the emotional body blow of the funeral in Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral of anti-apartheid activist cleric Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The next morning South Africans woke to the shocking sight of their parliament in flames right next door.

Firefighters work at the parliament building in Cape Town, South Africa, as a fire flared up again Monday.
Firefighters work at the parliament building in Cape Town, South Africa, as a fire flared up again Monday. © Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

Now they have been told by the lawyer of 49-year-old charged with this unprecedented piece of arson that police have got the wrong man.

Lawyer Luvuyo Godla, who is a member of the hard left Economic Freedom Fighters, says his client Zandile Christmas Mafe denies all charges against him.

These are two counts of arson and one each of possessing an explosive device, housebreaking and theft.

He will plead not guilty when his trial resumes in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on the 11th of January.

The delay will enable police, who have not had access to the building, which reignited Monday afternoon, to investigate the incident

Godla says Mafe will apply for bail although the prosecution will oppose this.

Possession of explosives

Police say Mafe was arrested in the parliamentary precincts on Saturday in possession of explosives.

Godla says it is easy for police to take a suspect to the scene of the crime.

Mafe strenuously denies have explosives.

The lawyer says he and his client both live in the sprawling informal settlement of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town.

They had met previously, which was why Mafe has asked Godla to represent him.

Godla said he is acting pro bono for Mafe.

“He is a victim of classical scapegoating,” Godla said of Mafe.

Questions to be answered

The fire raises many questions. Why did the alarm sound only after firefighters arrived at the scene? According to President Cyril Ramaphosa, this was six minutes after the fire started. Were the security personnel in parliament when the fire started? Why were the water sprinklers not working?

Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula has strongly denied that she dropped the ball on parliamentary security. Mapisa Nqakula got the job as speaker after being sacked as defense minister three months ago.

Fire, smoke, and water damage have wrecked the old assembly building, built in 1884 and the new assembly building constructed a century later.

Both government and opposition are adamant that the State Of The Nation Address (SONA), traditionally delivered by the President after the opening of parliament must take place.

This year it is scheduled for 11 February.

“It has to take place,” said opposition leader John Steenhuysen addressing journalists outside the charred Assembly buildings.

“There has not been a more critical time with record unemployment, the Commission on State Capture handing its report to the President today, and the fire in parliament.

“Even if it is held on an open field the SONA debate must take place” he added.

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