A man in his 50s has been arrested after a major fire at the South African parliament caused extensive damage, collapsing the roof and gutting an entire floor in one building.
The fire broke out in the early morning and authorities said the sprinkler system appeared to have been tampered with and so did not work. By afternoon, firefighters were still trying to contain the blaze in one of the several buildings that make up the parliament complex in the legislative capital, Cape Town.
A person was arrested inside parliament, public works and infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille told reporters, adding that the case had been handed over to an elite police unit called the Hawks.
“It’s the role of the Hawks to investigate any attack on political institutions,” Ms De Lille said.
There are no reports of any injuries.
The cause of the blaze is not yet known, but Ms De Lille said that according to a report that she had received, a standard maintenance fire drill had been conducted just before parliament closed for the Christmas and new year holidays, and everything including the sprinklers was working.
“What was discovered this morning is that somebody had closed one of the valves, and so then there was no water to trigger that automatic sprinkler system coming on,” Ms De Lille said, adding that CCTV footage had confirmed that somebody was in the building from the early hours of the morning.
President Cyril Ramaphosa told reporters after visiting the site that parliament’s work would continue despite the blaze. He also praised firefighters for saving a “very important national asset of our government”.
The parliamentary complex, some of which dates back to 1884, consists of a cluster of buildings. The National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, is situated in what is known as the New Wing.
The upper house, or National Council of Provinces (NCOP), is located in what is called the Old Wing or Old Assembly, which is also used for committee meetings.
“The fire has been contained in the Old Wing. Firefighters are currently trying to control the fire in the New Wing, where the fire has affected the National Assembly Chamber,” the presiding officers said in a statement.
By afternoon the smoke had partially subsided, after billowing for hours from the roof and entrance of the National Assembly. But City of Cape Town fire services chief Jermaine Carelse said the fire was still active, and was now concentrated on the first and third floors.
The fire, which started just before 6 am, is the second at the parliament in less than a year. In March there was a blaze caused by an electrical fault.
Mr Carelse said no injuries had been reported. Parliament was closed for the holidays.
Security guards first reported the fire at around 6am, Mr Carelse said, and 35 firefighters were on the scene. Some of them were lifted up on a crane to spray water onto the blaze from above.
Flames could be seen rising from the roof of the building in the centre of the city, while a dark plume of smoke was visible from miles away.