Firefighters battled a large blaze at South Africa’s 138-year old Parliament complex on Sunday, and officials feared the damage could be extensive.
Police have arrested one suspect, who was found inside the complex, Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille said at a news conference Sunday. She said the investigation was ongoing and had been turned over to South Africa’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation.
De Lille said CCTV “confirmed that someone was in the building from the early hours in the morning,” and that “someone had closed one of the valves” for fire sprinklers, explaining why some reportedly did not go off. The sprinkler system recently passed a maintenance check.
Investigations are underway into the circumstances of these security breaches, she said, as South African media questioned why the complex had not been better protected.
Hours after the early morning fire began, President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the still-inflamed scene and called it “a terrible and devastating event.”
Later Sunday, Parliament released a statement saying that the fire was “under control” in the area containing its upper house, the National Council of Provinces. But it said firefighting efforts continued in the National Assembly chamber, where some offices were “severely gutted” and other sections suffered “significant damage.”
Parliament said that “all efforts” will be made to “limit any disruption” of its work.
De Lille said efforts were underway to set up a temporary meeting place for legislators.
The fire appeared to have started around the complex’s old assembly hall and spread to the National Assembly building, Ramaphosa said.
Parliament was not in session at the time of the fire.
The full extent of the damage is not known, but JP Smith, a Cape Town mayoral committee member responsible for safety and security, predicted that it “will be significant.”
“These are valuable buildings, which we cannot afford to lose,” Smith told Newzroom Afrika. He added that “the fact that they’re calling for more resources to assist is not a good sign.”
Ramaphosa praised the quick response of firefighters, who he said arrived within six minutes of being alerted.
Ramaphosa and many other South African politicians were in Cape Town for the funeral of Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Saturday. The service took place about a block from the Parliament precinct, the Associated Press reported. Tutu died last Sunday at 90.