At dawn this Sunday, the South African Parliament in Cape Town faced a devastating fire. For more than six hours, about 70 firefighters fought the fire, supported by reinforcements from across the peninsula, while a thick column of black smoke colored the city’s skyline. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who left Pretoria, the seat of the executive branch, to deliver a message on the Union’s position in parliament, was forced to change his plans.
Tragedy led to the collapse of the ornate roof of this historic building with its distinctive red and white façade, where President Frederic Willem de Klerk announced the end of the apartheid regime in 1990. Alarming cracks caused by the heat are visible on the walls. South African Mail and Guardian newspaper. There is great concern about the building’s basement, filled with artifacts such as the national anthem project, as well as the library, which appears to have been spared by the flames, but which may have been damaged by water.
“It is clear that this fire devastated the territory of the parliament, its contents and trophies, including the historical treasures from the heritage of the parliament,” Ramaphosa reacted in a statement. “This is horrible the day after our last farewell to Archbishop Desmond Tutu,” he lamented, referring to one of the most prominent symbols of the fight against apartheid, who died last week at the age of 90.
While the parliament was burning, the cheap coffin with the remains of Tutu was buried, following the instructions of an archbishop known for his modesty. Tutu’s body, which also stood out in the fight for environmental causes, was “aquamado”, a method of cremation that is considered more sustainable, in which the deceased is placed in water with an alkaline substance at a temperature of about 150 ºC. The body turns to dust, a bath compared to a posthumous baptism.
Accident or arson? South African authorities said the 51-year-old man had been detained and was being interrogated. A preliminary investigation revealed that the fire started in an office building on the third floor of the oldest wing of Parliament and spread to the gymnasium.
“Until there is a report of arson, we must be careful not to speculate about an attack,” warned Nosivive Mapisa-Nkakula, speaker of the South African parliament.
South Africa is at an explosive political moment. He also faced riots and looting in July following protests against the release of former President Jacob Zuma, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court when he was tried for corruption.
Zuma harbors an inner hatred of his former deputy, Ramaphos. During the July riots, the South African press was full of reports of sabotage by supporters of the former president, including intelligence and security officials, stoking chaos in retaliation for his conviction in court.