Suspect Charged With Arson in Fire at South Africa’s Parliament
The 49-year-old was also accused of possessing explosives, stealing laptops and other items and breaking security laws. His lawyer said the man had been wrongly accused in a rush to find a scapegoat.,
The 49-year-old was also accused of possessing explosives, stealing laptops and other items and breaking security laws. His lawyer said the man had been wrongly accused in a rush to find a scapegoat.
CAPE TOWN — Prosecutors on Tuesday charged a 49-year-old man from 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.
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.
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.