Terrorism charge for suspect in South Africa Parliament fire
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — A homeless man accused of setting a fire that destroyed part of South Africa’s historic Parliament complex was charged with terrorism Tuesday and sent to a psychiatric hospital for a month for assessment.
Zandile Mafe, 49, appeared in a courtroom in Cape Town for a bail hearing, when the terrorism charge was added to his indictment. Mafe was already charged with housebreaking with intent to steal, theft, two counts of arson and possession of an explosive device when he appeared in court for the first time last week.
Prosecutors now contend that Mafe had intended to “deliver, place, discharge or detonate” the explosive device at the Parliament complex.
The Parliament precinct in Cape Town was ravaged by a major blaze, which Mafe is accused of starting early on Jan. 2. It took firefighters four days to completely extinguish the fire. It destroyed the main chamber of the National Assembly building, where South Africa’s Parliament sits, and also caused extensive damage to other buildings in the 130-year-old complex, which has hosted the national legislature since the time of British colonialism in the late 1800s.
In all, 300 firefighters, some atop cranes, worked for more than 70 hours to tame the blaze. No injuries were reported as Parliament was closed for the holidays.
The size of the fire and the extent of the damage immediately raised concerns there had been an intentional attack on South Africa’s seat of democracy.
Mafe, who was described as homeless in his first court appearance, was arrested at the scene on the day the fire started and found with an explosive device, authorities said. The investigation has been taken over by a South African police unit that deals with high-profile crimes, and it said there could be more arrests.
Mafe has denied the charges against him and a defense lawyer claimed he is being used as a scapegoat to cover up failings in Parliament security.
On Tuesday, the judge ordered that Mafe be sent to the Valkenberg psychiatric hospital in Cape Town for a 30-day assessment. Prosecutors had submitted a report from a doctor who diagnosed Mafe with paranoid schizophrenia, prosecution spokesman Eric Ntabazalila said.
Mafe had threatened to go on a hunger strike if he wasn’t released on bail, his lawyers said, but a decision on his bail was postponed until his psychiatric assessment was complete.
Questions remain over how Mafe got into the complex and why the Parliament fire sprinkler system didn’t work.
Government minister Patricia de Lille said at the time of the fire that a water valve had been turned off. But a preliminary report into the blaze pointed out some failings in Parliament’s fire safety plan and said parts of the fire sprinkler system hadn’t been serviced as often as they should have. The report also noted the system’s water valve should have been locked in the open position.
There was another unexpected development in the case when lawyer Dali Mpofu, a former chairman of an opposition political party in South Africa, joined Mafe’s legal team as his chief defense lawyer. Mpofu is also defending former South African President Jacob Zuma in his corruption trial.