South Africa lost Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the close of the outgoing year on December 26. He was known for the role he played for ending apartheid in South Africa and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for his nonviolent opposition to apartheid in South Africa. He was given a state funeral on new year’s day on 1 January at St George's Cathedral, the Anglican cathedral in Cape Town. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described Tutu as "the spiritual father of our new nation".
A great disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, Tutu adopted nonviolent struggle to oppose apartheid in South Africa. He later chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that helped to heal post-apartheid South Africa.
South Africans had not even finished mourning the loss of this iconic leader, when a large fire broke out and severely damaged the Houses of Parliament in the South African city of Cape Town, just a stone’s throw from the place where the funeral mass for Archbishop Tutu was held, just the day before. President Cyril Ramaphosa described his shock at the damage caused by the fire, calling it a "terrible and devastating event", adding that Archbishop Tutu would also have been devastated.
As dozens of firefighters battled the flames, fire and rescue service officials explained that putting out the fire completely was made harder by the carpets and wooden floors in the building. A member of the Cape Town mayoral committee for safety and security told reporters that the roof above the old assembly hall was "completely gone", and even after several hours, it had not been possible to gain access to the precious historical artefacts inside the old chamber. Strong winds caused smouldering wood in the roof to catch fire again a day later before firefighters doused the blaze. Parliament was not in session and there were no injuries reported.
It is the second fire at the Parliament in less than a year in March there was a fire caused by an electrical fault. Last year, a fire also ravaged part of the University of Cape Town's library, which was home to a unique collection of African archives. Reports indicate that some fire safety measures were not in place at the Parliament building; the fire sprinklers had not been activated during the fire; the alarm system did not work, and doors supposed to help block the fire from spreading were kept open by latches.
Parliament House in Cape Town was made up of three sections.The oldest dated back to 1884, while the newer sections built in the 1920s and 1980s housed the National Assembly. The Parliament of South Africa sits in Cape Town, even though the seat of government is in Pretoria. This unique and unorthodox arrangement dates back to the foundation of the Union of South Africa, the historical predecessor to the present-day Republic of South Africa. It came into existence on 31 May 1910 with the unification of the Cape, the Natal, the Transvaal, and the Orange River colonies.
Disagreements amongst the four provinces over the location of the Union's capital led to a compromise by which every province was given a share of the benefits of the capital: the administration was seated in Pretoria (Transvaal), the Parliament in Cape Town (Cape Province), the Appellate Division in Bloemfontein (Orange Free State), and the archives in Pietermaritzburg (Natal). Thus, as a compromise, Cape Town became the legislative capital, Bloemfontein the judicial capital, and Pretoria the administrative capital of South Africa.
The African National Congress (ANC) government has for some time propagated moving Parliament to Pretoria, on grounds that the arrangement is cumbersome, needing ministers, civil servants and diplomats to move back and forth when Parliament is in session. Many countries maintain two residences for their Ambassadors to South Africa, one in Pretoria and another in Cape Town.
In 2018, the Government of South Africa formed a project steering committee to conduct a feasibility study for moving Parliament to Pretoria and to identify potential sites for a new parliament building. In April 2019, the Minister of Public Works announced that a list of potential sites had been drawn up. In 2020, it was suggested that moving parliament to Pretoria would save R650 million (over £ 30 million) per year.
Several Capetonians oppose this move and see it as the ANC trying to centralise power. Given the devastation caused by the fire, Parliament will need to exercise the provision available for sitting elsewhere. This may reignite the demand for moving the Parliament to Pretoria.
The Parliament of South Africa is a proud symbol of the Rainbow Nation that replaced the white minority rule of the apartheid era. One can only wish that the devastating fire will not be able to dampen the democratic spirit that South Africans are proud of.