This week two years ago, South Africans woke up to the shocking news that a fire had ripped through parts of the historic Parliament buildings.
The blaze ravaged the National Assembly building, including the National Assembly Chamber, and hundreds of offices of MPs and inflicted extensive damage to parts of the Old Assembly Chamber.
The fire broke out just after 6am on January 2, 2022 and firefighters were dispatched within six minutes to douse the flames in the Old Assembly and then the National Assembly, where part of the ceiling had collapsed. The fire occurred about a month before the much anticipated State of the Nation Address, which had to be relocated to the Cape Town City Hall.
The restoration project has been estimated to cost R2 billion while construction is set to commence in the first quarter of 2024 and conclude at the end of 2025.
Findings from a probe into the fire, released in October last year, showed that minimum physical standards of security measures were not adhered to, which enabled Parliament to be breached without detection. The investigation also found a range of systems and maintenance failures that contributed to security breaches and the failure to prevent and contain the fire.
In November last year, it resulted in the suspension of nine Parliament staff members over alleged administrative irregularities linked to the incident which pointed to “systems and conduct” of specific employees.
The move was welcomed by many as a step towards accountability.
In an update this week, Parliament said the incident inflicted a “collective national trauma” on South Africans, a memory that would linger for many years.
In the first year after the fire, Parliament had initiated a business continuity management framework to minimise disruptions. This included securing alternative venues for joint sittings of the two Houses for the State of the Nation Address and National Assembly sessions, repairing the ICT system in the Chamber of the National Council of Provinces, and facilitating both virtual and physical committee sittings.
Parliament spokesperson, Moloto Mothapo said: “A significant portion of the first year was dedicated to damage assessment by agencies appointed by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, a process that spanned most of 2022. Concurrently, Parliament secured over R2 billion for reconstruction of the damaged buildings and R118 million for unforeseen expenditures due to the fire and Covid 19, in collaboration with the National Treasury.”
Last year, the presiding officers of Parliament emphasised the urgency of restoring the buildings.
“Following a meticulously designed rebuilding blueprint, 2023 was dedicated to laying the groundwork for the reconstruction. Early in 2023, Parliament and the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) formed a partnership for the rebuilding project.
The agreement encompassed capacity development, technical support, and implementation of infrastructure projects. This involved refurbishing the Old Assembly and National Assembly buildings and the link building, clearing rubble for detailed assessments, and remodelling 155 offices in the 90 Plein Street building to accommodate MPs’ physical return to the precincts,” said Mothapo.
Concurrent with office remodelling, Parliament completed site preparation for reconstruction, including rubble and debris removal, as well as asset verification and removal from damaged buildings.
“The site is now primed for construction. An essential aspect of site preparation was also installing temporary roofing on the damaged Old Assembly building, protecting the upcoming construction from adverse weather. Following rubble removal, the DBSA conducted detailed site assessments, prepared designed concepts for the damaged buildings, prepared elemental costing, and presented budget estimates as well as an implementation plan to Parliament,” he added.
According to Mothapo, parts of the building found to be structurally unstable will be demolished as part of the actual rebuilding work.
“This will be in line with the South African Heritage Resources Agency requirements. The stage 2 design concepts, compliant with National Building Regulations, will incorporate green building principles. A green Parliament building would not only be an investment in environmental sustainability but also bring economic, health, and social benefits, aligning the values and practices of the institution with the pressing need for environmental sustainability,” he said.
The heritage permit application process is currently underway, as a “pre-qualification process” for contractors has begun to “expedite procurement upon completion of detailed designs and documentation”.
“These designs aim to promote open access to the Parliament precinct, foster professionalism, and teamwork, and highlight South Africa's rich cultural diversity,” Mothapo said.
Zandile Christmas Mafe, who was charged with arson, spent most of last year before the courts over the incident.
He was arrested soon after the fire, after CCTV cameras showed someone was in the parliamentary building from the early hours of the morning.
Mafe faced charges of housebreaking with intent to commit arson, arson, terrorism, and theft.
Western Cape High Court Judge Nathan Erasmus had declared Mafe unfit to stand trial due to him being diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was confirmed through two reports.
However, in December last year, legal representatives for Mafe confirmed they intended to challenge the Western Cape High Court judgment which found he was unfit to stand trial, while their client was set to be admitted to the Pollsmoor Prison Hospital section until a bed at a psychiatric facility was available.