Fire ravages South Africa’s 138-year-old Parliament complex

“This is a very sad day for democracy, for Parliament is the home of our democracy,” Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille told reporters as smoke billowed behind her from the roof of South Africa’s 138-year-old historic white Parliament Complex with grand entrance columns.

The fire gutted offices and caused some ceilings to collapse at a site that has hosted some of the country’s pivotal moments.

Around 70 firefighters were still battling the fire hours after it started in the early morning, Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Jermaine Carelse said. Some were lifted up on a crane to spray water on the blaze from above. No injuries have been reported and Parliament itself had been closed for the holidays.

Officials said the fire started in the Old Assembly building, which was built in 1884 and originally housed the South African Parliament but is now used for offices. It spread to the newer National Assembly building, built in the 1980s, which is where the Parliament now sits.

Authorities feared extensive damage to both buildings, which have stark white facades, elaborate roof linings and majestic columns, now all obscured by flames and smoke. There were also fears that priceless artifacts inside, including a manuscript where the composer first wrote some lyrics for South Africa’s national anthem, would be lost forever.

The firefighters were now focusing efforts toward saving the National Assembly building` where former President F.W. de Klerk stood up at the opening of Parliament in 1990 and announced he was freeing Nelson Mandela from prison and effectively ending the apartheid system of white minority rule. The news electrified the country and reverberated around the world.

Visiting the scene, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said a person was “being held and is being questioned” by police in connection with the blaze. Police later confirmed a 51-year-old man had been detained.

Authorities were reviewing video camera footage and questioning the man arrested at the precinct. Parliament speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula cautioned against speculation that it was a deliberate attack on South Africa’s seat of democracy.

“Until such a time that a report has been furnished that there was arson, we have to be careful not to make suggestions that there was an attack,” Mapisa-Nqakula said.

This came as a double blow to South Africans just two days into the new year: saying farewell to Desmond Tutu and then seeing their Parliament burn.