Cape Town – A huge fire that destroyed a large part of South Africa’s parliament has been brought under control, firefighters said on Monday, a day before a suspect was due to appear in court over the blaze.
The fire broke out early on Sunday in the oldest wing of the parliament complex and dozens of crews battled throughout the day to extinguish the flames.
“The fire was brought under control during the night,” spokesperson Jermaine Carelse said, adding that the blaze was still burning in the part of the building where it began, which was completed in 1884 and has wood-panelled rooms.
Officials said the entire part housing the National Assembly had been destroyed.
“The most damage is in the National Assembly building,” Carelse said. “That won’t be used for months.”
Earlier, parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said the roof of the National Assembly had collapsed and that the fire was “so intense” in that part of the building that firefighters had been forced to withdraw.
“The entire chamber where the members sit… has burned down,” he said.
No casualties were reported.
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.
“A man has been arrested inside the parliament, he’s still being interrogated. We have opened a criminal case,” police spokesperson Thandi Mbambo said, adding that the suspect will appear in court on Tuesday.
The parliament building houses a collection of rare books and the original copy of the former Afrikaans national anthem “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” (“The Voice of South Africa”), which was already damaged.
The full extent of the fire’s damage was still being assessed.
The parliament’s presiding officers were to meet on Monday 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, told reporters the entire complex had suffered extensive water and fire damage and “nothing” was left of the part of the historic part.
This is where Parliament kept treasures including around 4,000 heritage and art works, some dating back to the 17th century.
These include the 120- metre-long (390-foot) Keiskamma tapestry, named after a river in the southeast of the country, tracing the history of South Africa from the first indigenous peoples, the San, to the historic democratic elections of 1994.
After ravaging the older wing of the building, the flames spread to newer parts of the complex which are currently in use.
Second fire in a year
Around 70 firefighters were deployed on Sunday, some using a crane to spray water on the blaze. Around 20 remained at the scene on Monday to put out the remaining flames.
Images broadcast on television had earlier shown giant flames leaping from the roof.
The area around the blaze was quickly cordoned off, with the cordon stretching to a square where flowers were still displayed in front of the nearby 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 president FW de Klerk announced in 1990 plans to dismantle the brutal white-minority regime.
The houses of parliament consist 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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