South African prosecutors charge parliament fire suspect with terrorism

The suspect in a fire that gutted parts of South Africa’s 138-year-old parliament building this month was charged with terrorism on Tuesday, appearing in court for a case officials have described as an attack on the country’s democracy.

Zandile Mafe, 49, had already been charged with arson in connection with the fire that started on January 2, but the additional charge of terrorism was added because he had also been caught with an explosive device, the prosecution said.

The blaze caused the roof of the newer part of the building to collapse, and also damaged the Old Wing dating back to 1884, when the Cape was under British colonial rule.

Built in the ornate Victorian neo-classical style, against the backdrop of Table Mountain, the stately red-and-white parliament building is also one of Cape Town’s tourist draws.

Some sections containing important heritage, such as a museum with artworks, were saved, however.

The case was adjourned until February 11 and Mafe ordered to be detained in a psychiatric institute after pleas from his defence council that he suffers from mental illness. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the court building in central Cape Town, saying Mafe was innocent.

South Africa’s parliament has played a crucial role in South Africa’s transition over the past three decades from undemocratic white minority rule to a place where highly progressive legislation has been passed, helping roll back repressive apartheid-era policies.

A new blaze broke out on Monday at the complex housing the two chambers of South Africa’s national parliament in Cape Town, one day after a devastating fire swept through the buildings.

“The fire and rescue service confirms that the fire at parliament has flared up. The void beneath the roof sheeting of the National Assembly is on fire,” a spokesman for the city’s fire services said on Monday afternoon.

Police have charged a 49-year-old man with arson and other offences including theft, and he was expected to appear in court on Tuesday.

National Assembly speaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, said the arson, if confirmed, would represent an attack on the country’s democracy.

The initial fire on Sunday caused the roof of the New Wing housing, the assembly’s lower chamber, to collapse. The roof of the Old Wing which dates back to 1884 and houses the upper chamber National Council of Provinces (NCOP), also partially collapsed. -Reuters

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