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South African Parliament Fire Raises Deeper Questions About Democracy

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.

President  @CyrilRamaphosa  accompanied by Minister  @MondliGungubele , Minister  @PatriciaDeLille , Deputy Minister  @ZiziKodwa , and Premier  @AlanWinde  as he inspects the damage to the Parliament buildings in Cape Town.

President @CyrilRamaphosa inspects the damage to the Parliament buildings in Cape Town.

Carl-Johan Karlsson

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.”

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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