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Firefighters battle new blaze at South African parliament, suspect charged with arson

Police
charged a 49-year-old man with arson and other offences including theft and he
was expected to appear in court on Tuesday. The speaker of the National
Assembly said arson, if confirmed, would represent an attack on the country’s
democracy.

“The
fire and rescue service confirms that the fire at parliament has flared up. The
void beneath the roof sheeting of the National Assembly is on fire,” a
spokesman for the city’s fire services said on Monday afternoon.

Sunday’s
fire caused the roof of the New Wing housing the lower chamber National
Assembly to collapse. The roof of the Old Wing, which dates back to 1884 and
houses the upper chamber National Council of Provinces (NCOP), also partially
collapsed.

“It is
a very abnormal kind of situation,” said Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, speaker
of the National Assembly.

“The
question that even a young child would ask is: ‘How is it possible that fire
which started in some part of the Old Assembly would find itself to the new
chamber? We don’t know,” she told a news briefing.

INVESTIGATIONS

In a
separate statement, an elite police unit known as the Hawks said the suspect
was believed to have gained entry to the parliament through a window in one of
the offices and investigations were continuing into the matter.

“There
is a possibility of other charges being added as there was a security breach
here,” Hawks spokesperson Nomthandazo Mbambo told eNCA television.

Speaker
Mapisa-Nqakula said President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to parliament –
currently set for Feb. 10 – would still go ahead, lawmakers would still debate
and approve the budget and committees would continue their work.

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Earlier on
Monday, before the flames flared up anew, firefighters had managed to
extinguish most of the blaze and were just dealing with remaining
“hotspots on the fourth floor of the National Assembly”.

“Lots
of books and bookshelves (are) smouldering,” Jean-Pierre Smith, a Cape
Town mayoral committee member responsible for safety and security, adding that
the interior of the National Assembly had been destroyed by fire, water and
smoke.

A preliminary
report on potential costs and timelines for refurbishment is expected on
Friday, the public works and infrastructure minister said.

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