Burning down the house – a painful metaphor

When those responsible for the care and running of parliament are almost criminally neglectful and in-house security is inept, dysfunctional and allegedly corrupt, it exemplifies the wider running of the country. Regardless of how the fire started and why, parliament was totally abandoned over the festive season, for spurious reasons given by those who displayed a spectacularly dim-witted lack of imagination. It’s a simple question with a host of hugely important answers; why does parliament need to be protected? History in brick and mortar and irreplaceable aesthetics, precious archives, paintings, statues and antiques, highly sensitive, politically explosive information. Never mind the need to legislate and debate the issues of a nation. Then look at the wider political context of corruption, a party desperate to hold onto power, the EFF openly celebrating the ruinous conflagration, and a decades’ old lobby wanting parliament moved to Gauteng. Nah, why would anyone want to protect any of that! Witless is a word that comes to mind. That, or something else entirely… – Chris Bateman

The burning of parliament in Cape Town

By Peter Hammond*

Parliament on fire

Early on Sunday morning, 2 January, Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services received a call that smoke was seen coming out of the parliamentary buildings. Firefighters began arriving on the scene within six minutes of the report and before any fire alarm had been made from parliament itself! Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services soon had five fire engines and 36 firefighters on the scene. This later swelled to 70 firefighters as the blaze continued to spread out of control.

Initial damage assessment

City of Cape Town member for safety and security, JP Smith, said that the fire seemed to have started in the office complex on the third and top floor (the offices for ANC MPs) and gradually spread to the gymnasium. The roof of the old assembly building had completely collapsed, the main assembly chamber was gutted and there were cracks showing in the walls.

Destructive

Firefighters fought the blaze throughout Sunday before bringing it under control, but the roof burst into flames again on Monday afternoon. Many offices were severely gutted by the fire. Great damage was caused to the new assembly wing, which includes the National Assembly Chamber.

Suspected arsonist arrested

Police reported that a 49-year-old (some reports said 51 years old) suspect had been taken into custody. It was reported that a man linked to the fire that gutted parts of parliament is due to appear in the Cape Town Magistrates Court on Tuesday. The suspect faces charges of housebreaking, theft and arson and will also be charged under the National Key Points Act.

Sprinkler system disabled

Minister of Public Works, Patricia de Lille, confirmed that the sprinkler system at parliament had failed to operate because the valves had been closed. The minister could not offer an explanation as to who had been responsible for this.

Library preserved

The Mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, reported that while the parliamentary library had some smoke damage, the fire had not reached the library and it was safe. The mayor described the destruction of so much history as a “national tragedy”.

The absence of security personnel

It appears that the fire had been raging for some time before being reported. Reportedly, there were no security personnel in the building at the time, as parliament was not willing to pay workers overtime during the New Year holiday weekend.

An opportunity to relocate parliament

The fire was still blazing when deputy president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Floyd Shivambu, announced that this burning of parliament is an opportunity for the relocation of parliament to Gauteng.

Centralisation in Gauteng

Shivambu demanded that the “illogical” Cape Town location should be reconsidered. Rather than repairing the buildings, it would be better to move parliament to Tshwane in Gauteng, “a central and easily accessible area where the administrative capital is … Keeping parliament in Cape Town is plainly illogical! The pillar is one capital city!”

The reason why South Africa has three capitals

At the Union of South Africa in 1910, it was determined that, in keeping with reformation principles of decentralisation, the three branches of government would be geographically separated. The legislative capital would be Cape Town, the site of parliament. The judicial capital would be Bloemfontein with the Supreme Court. The executive capital would be Pretoria with the Union Buildings.

EFF: A beautiful fire!

EFF member of parliament, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi described the fire as “beautiful”. On social media he exclaimed: “Whatever the cause! Whatever the intentions, IT IS A BEAUTIFUL FIRE!”

A valuable opportunity

Ndlozi declared that the fire offered South Africa “a valuable opportunity” for a “fresh start” to move parliament to Tshwane. “A fire that allows us to start from scratch! A clean slate. Don’t renovate! Turn it into a museum as we accept a gift of such a beautiful fire! A clean slate to start afresh; IN TSHWANE!”

A national disgrace

DA member of parliament, Dean MacPherson, responded: “Anyone who celebrates the burning down of parliament doesn’t deserve to be an MP. They are a national disgrace.”

An opportunity to permanently relocate parliament to Gauteng

An official statement from the EFF declared: “If there is any appetite to curb wasteful government expenditure and to cut all ties related to the colonial framework established by those who conquered this nation, this fire must serve as an opportunity to permanently relocate parliament to Gauteng. This will allow government work to be synchronised … the EFF has long called for parliament to be relocated to a central location for political and cost-related reasons.”

Suspicious timing of arson at parliament

The African Transformation Movement (ATM) called for a multi-party committee to investigate the “suspicious burning” of Parliament after the devastation of this historic site on Sunday. The ATM declared that everything isn’t as it seems. “The ATM has noted the burning of parliament with great suspicion. We trust that this is not another calculated shenanigan to issue unnecessary so-called emergency tenders for refurbishments, private housing of the opening of parliament, or an attempt to scupper the inevitable secret ballot for a no-confidence motion in Ramaphosa.”

A convenient disaster to derail corruption investigations

The ATM noted that, with infections declining and parliament planning to resume as normal, only hours away from viewing the State Capture Inquiry Report, this fire is suspiciously convenient for the ANC government, which would prefer their failures and corruption not to be subjected to debate in parliament.

A new excuse to sideline parliament and accountability

“With hospitalisations on the decline and the relaxation of the lockdown regulations, it is becoming clear that the normal operations of parliament who were about to resume where Ramaphosa and his executive would be held accountable for misgoverning the country. Furthermore, it is suspicious that this happens on the eve of parliament receiving the State Capture Report where Ramaphosa, the ANC and members of parliament are implicated. A multi-party team should be appointed as a matter of urgency to get to the bottom of this strange and suspicious first-time occurrence. The ATM has no confidence in our intelligence services and thus this matter cannot be left solely in their hands.”

The missing Parliamentary Protection Service

National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) parliament branch chairperson, Sthembiso Tembu, said: “Parliament can’t rely on the police alone. They are outside. We are supposed to have the PPS (Parliamentary Protection Service) inside 24 hours … the PPS were not there because they (management) said they cannot pay overtime. Had they [PPS] been there, they would have been able to intervene and minimise the damage.”

Dysfunctional administration at parliament

The union said that it had already contacted administration over health and safety concerns last year. Recommendations of a 2018 report had not yet been put into place.

Violations of health and safety procedures

DA member of parliament, Samantha Graham, also raised concerns about health and safety compliance issues across the parliamentary precinct in a 2020 independent BDO assessment. “I understand that the report details over 30 violations of concern. To date, the September 2020 report has not been publicly released.” Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille said: “The report is being processed.”

Comparing this fire with the incident 10 months ago

This fire began on the third (top) floor where ANC MPs have offices. Ten months ago, in mid-March 2021, a fire broke out in a committee venue in the old assembly wing of parliament but was confined to the room as the sprinkler system was activated. An official fire investigation determined that it had been an electrical fault.

Crime at parliament

Over the last 22 months of lockdown, parliament has not operated at full capacity. Copper pipes have been stolen, drug dealing has been reported, break-ins and vandalism has been reported, such as with the trashing of the office of the opposition DA Chief Whip Natasha Mazzone.

Security failures

Since 30 July 2015, the PPS has not had a permanent head. The incumbent leader and deputy were suspended over allegations of corruption and security breaches and one contract ran out while on suspension.

Devastating security failure just when State Capture Inquiry is to be debated

ActionSA Western Cape Provincial chairperson, Vytjie Mentor, condemned the fire as “a severe security failure … ActionSA is appalled by the act of arson that has devastated a country’s parliament, along with what must be regarded to be a severe security failure. With confirmation of the arrest of a suspect, it is clear that this was no accident and it becomes difficult to view the tragedy in isolation with the tabling of the State Capture Commission of Inquiry next week, or the unrest witnessed in July last year.”

Treason against the people of South Africa

“In addition to this act of criminality, serious questions have to be asked about security and fire systems in our parliament. South Africa’s parliament is a vital symbol in our constitutional democracy. It was intended to be a sacred place where lawmakers represent the will of the South African people and hold the president and his cabinet to account. This act of arson, which has wreaked havoc in this national key point, cannot be reduced to another fire but an act committed against the South African people. ActionSA’s primary focus will be to ensure that law enforcement agencies conduct their investigations rapidly and without political interference, especially if this is found to be another consequence of the ANC factional fights.” It was speculated that the fire starting in the ANC MPs’ offices on the third floor was probably convenient for those who are facing investigation for corruption with many records being destroyed.

The oldest parliament in the southern hemisphere

Queen Victoria granted permission for the establishment of parliament in the Cape Colony in 1853. The first sittings were held in the governor’s residence, Tuynhuys. The upper house was housed in the old Supreme Court buildings. Construction on the parliament building in Cape Town began 12 May 1875 with then governor of the Cape, Henry Barkley laying the cornerstone. The first architect was Charles Freeman. The presence of groundwater and other complications led to Freeman being replaced as architect by Henry Greaves in 1876. The stately building was finally opened in 1884.

Historic buildings

In the 1920s, parliament commissioned Sir Herbert Baker to build an extension, including a new chamber for the House of Assembly. The old assembly chamber became the parliamentary dining room. Further extensions were added in the 1980s when the 1910 Constitution was replaced with the 1983 Tricameral Constitution. The original parliamentary building was designed in a neo-classical style incorporating features of Cape-Dutch architecture.

The ANC’s intention to relocate parliament

In 1996, when I was summoned to meet President Nelson Mandela, the subject came up over the ANC’s intention to relocate parliament to Midrand, in Gauteng. I questioned how such an extraordinarily huge expense could be justified in the light of his promises of housing for all. Even in the 1990s the money needed to build an equivalent structure would cost billions of rand. The national archives alone required a colossal amount of floor space.

The Freemason connection

Carl Niehaus, the apostate drop-out theological student who was Mandela’s “theological adviser” said that the present parliamentary buildings could be sold to help finance this. To this, I responded that actually they could not. As much of parliament sits on ground owned by the South African Freemasons, the arrangement had been that the Cape government purchased the land for £1 on condition that if parliament was ever to be moved, the land and all buildings on it would be sold back to the Freemasons for the same price, i.e., £1. While Carl Niehaus was shocked to hear this, Nelson Mandela remained impassive and plainly was well aware of this provision. Nelson Mandela was himself a senior Freemason.

The plot to destroy the Houses of Parliament

On 5 November 1605, the gunpowder plot to destroy the Palace of Westminster, which includes the House of Parliament and the House of Lords, in London, was thwarted with the arrest of Guy Fawkes and his associates. To this day, 5 November is marked with bonfires and the familiar “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot.” The attack on the parliament of a people is treason of the highest order.

“If a fire breaks out and spreads … he who started the fire shall surely make restitution.”

Exodus 22:6

  • Dr Peter Hammond, Frontline Fellowship

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