Images from the scene showed flames shooting out of the top of one building, sending plumes of thick black smoke into the sky above parliament and into neighboring streets.
The fire broke out on Sunday morning and more than 12 hours later, dozens of firefighters were still working to bring the blaze under control. No injuries or fatalities have been reported.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said it appeared that a sprinkler system “did not work as it was supposed to” and that a person was being questioned by authorities in relation to the fire.
Ramaphosa praised firefighters for working to “stop parliament from being razed to ashes” but said the fire had “devastated the parliamentary precinct and its contents and assets, including parliament’s historical treasures of heritage.”
JP Smith, a Cape Town mayoral committee member responsible for safety and security, told a news conference outside parliament that “the entire parliamentary complex is severely damaged, waterlogged and smoke damaged.”
“The roof above the Old Assembly hall is completely gone and the offices adjacent to it and the gym are destroyed,” Smith added. “The National Assembly chamber behind me, which you can see, is gutted, the structural ceiling has collapsed and the fire staff had to be momentarily withdrawn.”
Firefighters were still actively battling fires in the parliament’s National Assembly building on Sunday evening, a Cape Town Fire and Rescue Department spokesperson told CNN. The first and second floors of the Old Assembly building have been “completely gutted” by the intense blaze, and the third-floor roof of the Old Assembly building caved in earlier in the day, the spokesperson added.
The parliamentary complex, some of which dates back to 1884, consists of a cluster of buildings. The National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, is situated in what is known as the New Wing. The upper house, or National Council of Provinces, is located in what is called the Old Assembly.
The fire started in the office area of the complex before spreading to the National Assembly chambers. Firefighters got to the scene after 6 a.m. and had some difficulties gaining access due to the building’s security features, Smith said.
Smith also said the fire alarm system appeared not to have functioned properly, because firefighters were on the scene before the system sounded the alarm.
“The electricity at the complex did not trip when the fire started. That created a very dangerous situation and the entire block’s electricity had to be disconnected. The fire detection equipment took quite a while to activate, and so the fire was active for a while,” he added.
President Ramaphosa said Tutu would have been “devastated as well because [parliament] is a place that he not only supported, prayed for, and wanted to see as the repository of the democracy that he worked so hard for.”
Public Works and Infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille earlier told a news conference outside parliament that there were no reports of injuries.
“This is a very sad day for our democracy because parliament is the home of our democracy and parliament is also a strategic key point,” de Lille said.
Smith said Sunday’s blaze was more serious than another fire that broke out at parliament in March 2021. In the March incident, the fire broke out at the Old Assembly and no one was injured.
Eleanor Pickston contributed to this report.