A large fire has torn through South Africa’s parliament complex in Cape Town, causing extensive damage at a site that witnessed some of the country’s key moments.
As firefighters struggled to tame Sunday’s blaze, a dark plume of smoke and flames rose high into the air above Cape Town. Police said a 49-year-old man had been detained in connection to the fire, which destroyed offices and led to the collapse of some ceilings.
Officials said the fire started in the Old Assembly building, which was built in 1884 and originally housed the parliament but is now used for offices. It spread to the newer National Assembly building, built in the 1980s, which is where the parliament now sits.
Authorities feared extensive damage to both buildings, which have stark white facades, elaborate roof linings and majestic columns, now all obscured by flames and smoke. There were also fears that priceless artefacts inside, including an original manuscript of South Africa’s Afrikaans national anthem, would be lost forever.
While the Old Assembly building was closely connected to South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history, the National Assembly building was where former President FW de Klerk stood up at the opening of parliament in 1990 and announced he was freeing liberation hero Nelson Mandela from prison and effectively ending the apartheid system of white-minority rule.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and many of South Africa’s top politicians were in Cape Town for the funeral on Saturday of retired Archbishop and anti-apartheid Desmond Tutu at St George’s Cathedral, about a block away from the parliament.
Many in the country viewed the fire as a double blow on the first two days of the new year, after saying farewell to Tutu and then seeing their parliament burn.
“It’s just really a terrible setback,” Ramaphosa said. “The Arch (Tutu) would’ve been devastated as well. This is a place he supported and prayed for.”