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South Africa parliament fire suspect charged with terrorism

A man suspected of starting a fire that gutted South Africa's parliament made a second court appearance on Tuesday to face a new charge of terrorism, in addition to robbery and arson accusations.

Zandile Christmas Mafe, a suspect in connection to a fire at the South African Parliament, appears at the Magistrate Court in Cape Town on January 11, 2022. – He is suspected of starting a devastating fire that gutted South Africa’s parliament. A blaze broke out in the Cape Town complex before dawn on January 2, 2022 spreading to the National Assembly, the roof of which collapsed. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

A man suspected of starting a fire that gutted South Africa’s parliament made a second court appearance on Tuesday to face a new charge of terrorism, in addition to robbery and arson accusations.

Zandile Christmas Mafe, 49, was arrested around the parliament complex in Cape Town after the fire broke out on January 2 and appeared in court three days later.

Magistrate Zamekile Mbalo granted prosecutors a month’s delay to determine Mafe’s mental state and “if he is fit for trial” following a diagnosis that he was schizophrenic.

Mafe was initially charged with breaking into parliament, arson and intention to steal property, including laptops, crockery and documents, before the terrorism charge was added.

Prosecutors said the additional charge was introduced after investigators viewed CCTV footage from parliament on Monday.

A new charge read the “accused is guilty of the offence of contravening the provisions of… the protection of constitutional democracy against terrorist and related activities”, according to a court document.

“The accused did unlawfully and intentionally deliver, place, discharge or detonate an explosive, or other lethal device in… parliament building with the purpose… of causing extensive damage,” it said without giving further details.

The blaze broke out before dawn on January 2, spreading to the National Assembly, the roof of which collapsed.

Hunger strike threat
Defence lawyer Dali Mpofu said Mafe was “taken (in) for mental observation on January 3” and diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia.”

Mpofu is one of South Africa’s most famous lawyers, whose high-profile clients have included former president Jacob Zuma.

He said Mafe was seeking bail.

Mafe has vowed that “if his bail application does not proceed and he is not released from custody, as from this moment, he will embark on a hunger strike,” Mpofu said in the small courtroom.

According to Mpofu, Mafe who is widely described as homeless, “does not understand why the government, which was not able to feed him when he was poor outside and fending for himself, now is so keen to feed him for a further period of time”.

Without divulging details, Mpofu said his client believed he was being “victimised and targeted particular because he is poor”.

He refused to say if he was appearing pro-bono for Mafe, when asked by AFP.

In stark contrast to his first court appearance where he was bearded and dressed in a grey shirt with knee-length denim shorts, on Tuesday he came in clean shaven in a light blue shirt and a dark jacket. Mafe turned his head around for pictures to photographers.

As the Tuesday hearing concluded, Mafe repeatedly shook his head from left-to-right, taking off his mask.

Since his arrest, debate has raged in South Africa over whether Mafe, described in the local media as homeless, was responsible for setting the building on fire.

Protesters outside the court building demanded his release saying he was a scapegoat.

A group of around 30 people, picketed outside, brandishing handwritten signs such as “free Mafe,” “he is innocent” and “he is not guilty.”

Sprinkler failure
One homeless person recounted the events of the night the fire started. He was sleeping on a street near the parliament complex and heard a sound like a car collision. He later suspected that was the break-in before the fire started.

A preliminary report by the city of Cape Town last week said the fire detection system appeared “faulty,” “sprinklers did not activate” and maintenance scheduled for February 2020 had not been carried out.

It took scores of firefighters more than two days to extinguish the blaze, which tore through the wood-panelled assembly chamber where parliamentary debates are held.

No casualties were reported in the fire, but the extensive damage has shaken the country and forced the authorities to move the annual state-of-the-nation address to be delivered next month by President Cyril Ramaphosa to an alternative venue in Cape Town.

Ramaphosa at the weekend said incidents such as the parliament fire, undermined the country’s security and stability.

South Africa’s parliament is located in Cape Town, whereas its government is in Pretoria, close to the economic hub of Johannesburg.