Mystery deepens as suspect is charged in South Africa parliament fire

A jobless man, hard on his luck, has
emerged as the central suspect. Zandile Christmas Mafe, 49, who liked to talk
politics with friends, was charged Tuesday with arson, theft, housebreaking and
possession of explosives.

Police said they spotted and arrested
Mafe at the Parliament complex in Cape Town shortly after the fire was reported
Sunday. Prosecutors said he was caught with stolen laptops, documents and
crockery. He was also charged with breaking state security laws, because the
Parliament buildings are a site of national strategic importance.

The sudden destruction of historic
buildings that housed the National Assembly, and the offices of lawmakers, the
governing African National Congress party and several opposition parties, has
set off widespread confusion and speculation in a politically divided country.
South Africa is still on edge after a wave of rioting last July, which resulted
in the deaths of more than 300 people.

On short notice, members of Parliament
held a virtual meeting for more than 3 1/2 hours Tuesday, where lawmakers
echoed concerns raised by the public: Were maintenance and safety protocols in
the buildings too lax? Did the sprinklers fail? Why has the Parliament’s
Protection Services been left without a permanent head since 2015?

And have police and prosecutors found
the actual culprit?

“Why would a ‘vagrant’ wakeup and
burndown parliament?” tweeted Fikile Mbalula, the minister of transport and a
senior member of the ANC. The speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula,
said she believed the fire was no accident.

Mafe appeared only briefly in a packed
magistrates’ court, not far from the gutted parliamentary complex in the city centre,
dishevelled in a faded long-sleeved grey shirt with denim shorts and dirty

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Standing behind a thick plastic screen,
in place for pandemic regulations, he lowered his mask, allowing reporters to
see his face.

He did not enter a plea, although his
lawyer, Luvuyo Godla, said he plans to plead not guilty. He remains in custody,
and prosecutors have opposed bail, citing the severity of the charges.

Godla said his client denied setting the
fire or carrying an explosive device, and accused the government of
scapegoating a poor man to find a suspect quickly and distract from its own
failure to protect its buildings.

“What interest would that poor man have
in Parliament?” Godla said, speaking to reporters on the steps of the court.

Prosecutors, however, say that they are
certain they have the right man.

“He’s got a case to answer for,” Eric
Ntabazalila, a spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority, said in a
telephone interview. “Based on the evidence, we went to court.”

He said that more charges were likely to
be filed by the next court appearance. That is scheduled for Jan. 11, to allow
investigators to access the site, which remains dangerous.

Inside the small, corrugated iron shack
where Mafe lives in the township of Khayelitsha, 20 miles southeast of Cape
Town’s city centre, neighbours said the television, satellite dish and
refrigerator he owned had raised suspicion.

“He had things that people in the area
who work don’t have,” said Patrick Nkwela. “How do you explain that?”

Several neighbours said Mafe had only
moved into the area in August. He lived alone and seemed to know no one. He
could also always afford alcohol, they said, which he drank alone.

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He did not work but never missed his
rent, said Wendy Luhabe, his next-door neighbour.

In Langa, a township in Cape Town where
Mafe had lived for five years before moving to Khayelitsha, neighbours had a
different impression of him and were surprised that he was accused of having
anything to do with the Parliament fire.

They remember Mafe as respectful and
timid. They called him by his middle name, Christmas, or just Chris. He liked
to talk about current affairs and decried corruption, but never in a way that
felt threatening. A friend, Doreen Lekoma, said he’d worked for a bread factory
but had lost that job earlier in 2021.

When she bumped into him in July, she
said, he looked dishevelled, and was carrying an ironing board and other
belongings. She said she had seen him again Dec. 26, and he had looked hungry
and confused, so she gave him a meal.

His former girlfriend, Mbinde Andoni,
said she last saw him on Christmas Day. The next time she saw him was in news
footage from court, and she was shocked to see he was wearing the same gray
shirt and denim shorts.

“He was clearly sleeping on streets. How
would he know how to get into Parliament, what important areas and documents to
burn? It doesn’t add up,” said Andoni.

As South Africans watched smoke billow
from the entrance of the National Assembly, its chambers gutted and roof
collapsed, the sense of unease from the July unrest returned.

“The trust deficit between South African
citizens and the government is just yawning at this point,” said Ziyanda
Stuurman, an independent security analyst and a former researcher at

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The state has yet to provide a
“satisfactory answer” about the July unrest, and yet again, politicians are
seen to be deflecting questions about security, instead of winning public
confidence, she added.

Opposition politicians raised questions
about why the sprinkler system reportedly kicked in only after firefighters had
arrived on the scene. A parliamentarian belonging to a faction aligned with the
former president, Jacob Zuma, demanded to see security camera evidence of the suspect
entering Parliament, and circulated an image said to be Mafe, in the same
clothes he wore in court, asleep on a Cape Town sidewalk.

Others questioned the timing of the fire
— just days before the president and Parliament were to receive the first part
of a report of a large-scale commission looking into corruption under the
government of Zuma, the former president. On Tuesday, President Cyril
Ramaphosa, Zuma’s former deputy and now rival, received the first part of the
report and made it public.

The fire decimated the interior of a
complex made up of three conjoined buildings built between the 1880s and
expanded more than a century later, spanning the country’s transition from
colony to apartheid regime to constitutional democracy.

More than 60 firefighters battled the
blaze, supported by crew from South Africa’s Air Force. At one point, the wind
was so strong that firefighters pulled what one official called “death-defying
Spider-Man moves,” climbing up the side of the building to prevent the fire
from sweeping into Tuynhuys, the official office of the president.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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