A fire that ravaged part of South Africa’s parliament, engulfing the National Assembly and threatening national treasures, has been brought under control, firefighters said on Monday, as police charged a suspect with starting the blaze.
Flames broke out early Sunday in the oldest wing of the Cape Town complex, triggering an inferno that crews battled throughout the day.
“The fire was brought under control during the night,” spokesman Jermaine Carelse said, adding that teams were still extinguishing flames in the historic wood-panelled part of the building where it had begun.
“The most damage is in the National Assembly building,” Carelse said. “That won’t be used for months.”
Earlier, parliament spokesman Moloto Mothapo said the roof of the assembly had collapsed and 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.
Police said on Monday that they had charged a 49-year-old man whom they had detained inside parliament a day earlier.
The man, who is due to appear in court on Tuesday, has been accused of “housebreaking, arson” and damaging state property, The Hawks elite police unit said.
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.
“Nothing” was left of the part of the building’s historic section, which was completed in 1884, he said.
This is where Parliament keeps treasures including around 4,000 heritage and artworks, some dating back to the 17th century.
The collection includes 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.
It also features a 120-metre-long (390-foot) Keiskamma tapestry, named after a river in the southeast of the country, that traces 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.
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-era president, FW de Klerk, announced in 1990 plans to dismantle white-minority rule.
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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