Mystery Deepens as Suspect Is Charged With Setting South Africa’s Parliament on Fire

The 49-year-old was also accused of possessing explosives, stealing laptops and breaking security laws. Former neighbors were shocked. His lawyer said the government was rushing to find a scapegoat.,

The 49-year-old was also accused of possessing explosives, stealing laptops and breaking security laws. Former neighbors were shocked. His lawyer said the government was rushing to find a scapegoat.

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Zandile Christmas Mafe was charged with arson, theft, housebreaking and possession of explosives in connection with the fire.CreditCredit…Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

CAPE TOWN — Prosecutors on Tuesday charged a 49-year-old man living in a Cape Town township with arson, theft, housebreaking and possession of explosives in connection with the fire that gutted South Africa’s Parliament buildings.

The suspect, Zandile Christmas Mafe, is accused of starting the fire, which began early Sunday and was not fully extinguished until Tuesday morning. He was also charged with breaking state security laws, because the structure is a site of national strategic importance, containing the National Assembly and lawmakers’ offices.

Mr. Mafe, who lives in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township according to court documents, did not enter a plea, although his lawyer, Luvuyo Godla, said he plans to plead not guilty. He remains in custody, and prosecutors have opposed bail, citing the severity of the charges.

Security officials arrested Mr. Mafe at the Parliament complex Sunday morning, spotting him shortly after the fire was reported. He was caught with stolen laptops, crockery and documents, according to prosecutors.

Mr. Mafe appeared only briefly in a packed magistrates’ court, not far from the gutted parliamentary complex in the city center, appearing disheveled in a faded long-sleeved gray shirt with denim shorts and dirty sneakers as he stood in the dock.

Standing behind a thick plastic screen, in line with pandemic regulations, he lowered his mask, allowing reporters to see his face.

Mr. Mafe’s lawyer said his client had moved to Cape Town about six years ago and did not have a job. He said his client denied setting the fire or carrying an explosive device. He accused the government of picking up a poor man because they needed to find a suspect, and using Mr. Mafe as a scapegoat for its failure to protect its own infrastructure.

“What interest would that poor man have in Parliament?” he said, speaking to reporters on the steps of the court.

Prosecutors, however, say that they are certain they have the right man.

“He’s got a case to answer for,” Eric Ntabazalila, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said in a telephone interview. “Based on the evidence, we went to court.”

He said that more charges were likely to be filed by the next court appearance. That is scheduled for Jan. 11, to allow investigators to access the site, which remains dangerous.

Inside the small, corrugated iron shack where Mr. Mafe lives, neighbors said the satellite television and refrigerator he owned had raised suspicion.

“He had things that people in the area who work don’t have,” said Patrick Nkwela. “How do you explain that?”

Several neighbors said Mr. Mafe had only moved into the area in the Khayelitsha neighborhood in August of 2021. He lived alone and seemed to know no one. He could also always afford alcohol, they said, which he drank alone.

He did not work but never missed his rent, said Wendy Luhabe, his next-door neighbor.

In Langa, another township in Cape Town where Mr. Mafe had lived for five years before moving to Khayelitsha, neighbors had a different impression of him and were surprised that he was accused of having anything to do with the Parliament fire.

There, they remember Mr. Mafe as respectful and timid. A friend, Doreen Lekoma, said he’d worked for a bread factory but had lost that job earlier in 2021.

When she bumped into him in July, she said, he looked disheveled, and was carrying an ironing board and other belongings. She said she had seen him again on Dec. 26, and he had looked hungry and confused, so she gave him a meal.

The fire was only extinguished early on Tuesday, according to JP Smith, Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security. Firefighters will continue to monitor the buildings.

ImageFirefighters battled a blaze Monday on the roof of the National Assembly building in Cape Town.
Firefighters battled a blaze Monday on the roof of the National Assembly building in Cape Town.Credit…Stringer/EPA, via Shutterstock

On Monday afternoon, the fire flared up in a roof. Cape Town’s strong southeasterly wind, combined with wooden floorboards, years of dust and recently replaced bitumen — an asphalt used to seal the roof — created conditions for the fire to resume.

By midnight, the fire was brought under control, and teams of firefighters worked their way through what Mr. Smith described as a “labyrinth” of rooms to locate and extinguish other potential hot spots, winding lengths of hose through a “maze” of passages.

More than 60 firefighters battled the blaze, supported by crew from South Africa’s Air Force. At one point, the wind was so strong that firefighters could not risk using aerial platforms.

Instead, Mr. Smith said, they pulled “death-defying Spider-Man moves,” climbing up the side of the building to prevent the fire from sweeping into Tuynhuys, the official office of the president and one of the oldest buildings in the city.

Zanele Mji reported from Cape Town, and Lynsey Chutel from Johannesburg.

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