It took firefighters nearly three days to extinguish the blaze at the historic building in Cape Town, and the damage will persist as South Africans try to figure out how this happened, and what it says about the country’s struggle to reinforce its young democracy.
That the devastating fire at South Africa’s parliament building broke out in Cape Town on Sunday — one day after anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu's funeral was held nearby — only adds to the anguish of a nation struggling to reinforce its democracy nearly three decades after its first free elections.
Since the blaze was finally extinguished for good on Tuesday, South Africans have been debating the ramifications of the fire that tore through the 150-year-old building, laying waste to the wood-paneled assembly where the president makes his annual state-of-the-nation address.
Protest, negligence or crime of opportunity?
Adding to the uncertainty are doubts about the arrest of a 49-year-old unemployed man charged with arson. Zandile Christmas Mafea was arrested at the Parliament complex shortly after the fire was reported. According to prosecutors, Mafe was caught with stolen laptops, documents and crockery, and was charged with arson, theft, possession of explosives and breaking state security laws.
But questions also remain over why the alleged arsonist, who according to his lawyer plans to plead not guilty, would burn down the historic building. Some have pointed to the timing of the fire, occurring just days before the Parliament was to receive a report on corruption under former president Jacob Zuma. But others accuse the government of scapegoating a poor man to distract from its own failure to protect its buildings, with surveillance systems unmonitored and sprinklers said to have been out of commission, Mail & Guardian reports.
Whatever the motivation or narrative, the burning-down of a parliamentary building is bound to have a divisive effect in a country reeling from a long period of socio-economic decline and with a ruling party characterized by internal ideological incoherence.
Faultlines along the road to freedom
Since its first democratic election in 1994, South Africa has in the last decade drifted further and faster away from the vision of a modern country at peace with itself fought for by the likes of Tutu, who died last week at the age of 90, as well as the winner of that first election, the late Nelson Mandela.
The government’s failure to implement job-intensive growth policies in the first decade of the 21st century sparked popular doubts about the trickledown effect of neo-liberal policies, culminating in a transition of power from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma in 2009. The shift in leadership ushered in an era of seemingly endless corruption scandals, overspending, reduced private sector autonomy and plunging investor confidence. Last year, South Africa’s official unemployment rate became the highest in the world at more than 44%, and some experts suggest that in the absence of economic reform, the country could be a failed state by 2030.
Let’s put aside the finger-pointing
Today, South Africa is still on edge after a wave of deadly riots last July, and the pandemic has further reduced the working population. As such, the government’s handling of the burning of the parliamentary building — the site of both the promulgation of the apartheid laws as well as their abolishment — is likely to have a disproportionate effect on the population.In the Daily Maverick, Oscar van Heerden, deputy vice-chancellor at Fort Hare University, suggests that restoring basic trust in the government should start with restoring the building that holds South Africa’s collective heritage: “Let’s put aside the finger-pointing, let’s forget about possible arson plots and let’s just show the nation that, for once, we can get something done competently in the shortest possible time frame.”