South African Parliament arson suspect
CAPE TOWN – Prosecutors on Tuesday charged a 49-year-old man living in a township in Cape Town with arson, theft, burglary and possession of explosives in connection with the blaze that ravaged the South Parliament buildings. African.
The suspect, Zandile Christmas Mafe, is accused of starting the fire, which started early Sunday and was not fully extinguished until Tuesday morning. He was also accused of violating state security laws, as the structure is a site of national strategic importance, containing the National Assembly and the offices of lawmakers.
Mr Mafe, who lives in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township according to court documents, did not plead, although his lawyer, Luvuyo Godla, said he planned to plead not guilty. He remains in custody and prosecutors have opposed bail, citing the seriousness of the charges.
Security officials arrested Mr Mafe at the Parliament complex on Sunday morning, spotting him shortly after the blaze was reported. He was arrested with laptops, dishes and stolen documents, prosecutors said.
Mr Mafe only appeared briefly in a crowded magistrates’ court not far from the emptied parliament complex in the city center, appearing disheveled in a faded gray long-sleeved shirt with denim shorts and dirty sneakers as he he was standing on the platform.
Standing behind a thick plastic screen, in accordance with pandemic regulations, he lowered his mask, allowing reporters to see his face.
Mr Mafe’s lawyer said his client moved to Cape Town about six years ago and did not have a job. He said his client denied setting on fire or carrying an explosive device. He accused the government of picking up a poor man because he needed to find a suspect and used Mr Mafe as a scapegoat for his failure to protect his own infrastructure.
“What interest would this poor man have in Parliament?” he said, speaking to reporters on the steps of the court.
Prosecutors, however, say they’re certain they’ve got the right fit.
“He must answer for a case,” Eric Ntabazalila, spokesperson for the National Prosecution Authority, said in a telephone interview. âBased on the evidence, we went to court. “
He said more charges would likely be laid at the next court appearance. This is scheduled for January 11 to allow investigators to access the site, which remains dangerous.
Inside the small corrugated iron shack where Mr Mafe lives, neighbors said the satellite TV and refrigerator he owned had raised suspicion.
âThere were things that people in the region who work don’t have,â said Patrick Nkwela. “How do you explain that?”
Several neighbors said Mr Mafe did not move into the Khayelitsha neighborhood area until August 2021. He lived alone and seemed to know no one. He could also always afford alcohol, they said, which he drank alone.
He didn’t work but never missed his rent, said next door neighbor Wendy Luhabe.
In Langa, another Cape Town commune where Mr Mafe had lived for five years before moving to Khayelitsha, neighbors had a different impression of him and were surprised that he was accused of breaking into parliament.
There they remember Mr. Mafe as respectful and shy. A friend, Doreen Lekoma, said he had worked for a bread factory but lost that job earlier in 2021.
When she met him in July, she said, he looked disheveled and was carrying an ironing board and other personal effects. She said she saw him again on December 26 and he looked hungry and confused, so she fed him.
The blaze was not extinguished until early Tuesday, according to JP Smith, a member of the Cape Town mayor’s committee for safety and security. Firefighters will continue to monitor the buildings.
Monday afternoon, the fire broke out in a roof. The strong south-eastern Cape wind, combined with parquet planks, years of dust and recently replaced bitumen – an asphalt used to seal the roof – created the conditions for the fire to resume.
By midnight the blaze was brought under control and fire crews walked through what Mr Smith described as a ‘maze’ of rooms to locate and extinguish other potential hot spots, winding lengths of hose through a “Maze” of passages. .
More than 60 firefighters fought the blaze, supported by a South African Air Force crew. At one point the wind was so strong that firefighters couldn’t risk using aerial platforms.
Instead, Mr Smith said, they fired “death-defying Spider-Man moves,” climbing up the side of the building to prevent the blaze from spreading to Tuynhuys, the president’s official office and the one of the oldest buildings in the city. .
Zanele Mji reported from Cape Town and Lynsey Chutel from Johannesburg.