“As by fire” is the evocative phrase from the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, which was recently used by Jonathan Jansen as title for his apocalyptic take on the “end of the South African university”.

When fires swept through the houses of parliament on January 2, I had many thoughts — literary, historical and deeply personal.

First, I thought back on other great legislatures put to the match.

The most notorious, of course, was the Reichstag fire in Berlin in February 1933, at the seat of the German parliament. This was an act of arson by a Dutch communist (though unproved suggestions of Nazi involvement persist), Marinus van der Lubbe. The fire, which gutted the legislature, provided Hitler with the excuse to rule via decree, abolish most civil liberties and entrench his party with an artificial majority in parliament through the proscription of its communist members. The rest is, as the following 12 years bore rueful witness, history.

Across in Britain, its famous House of Commons — “the mother of parliaments”, or the Palace of Westminster — was largely consumed by fire in October 1834, after an act of carelessness by officials who decided to burn obsolete pieces of wood, tally sticks, in a furnace unsuited for such purpose. The resulting chimney fire ignited the woodwork and, in quick succession, the House of Lords and St Stephen’s Chapel were destroyed, and the House of Commons devastated.

And then during the war unleashed by Hitler over a century later, the House of Commons was set on fire by incendiary bombing, one of 14 such air raids which hit parliament.

Of the personal, I thought back to all the history I had witnessed from the football stadium-like national assembly: the De Klerk speech of February 1990, the Mandela presidential election in May 1994, and the link between those two epic events — the enactment of the constitution two years later in 1996.

Before I joined the chamber, there was of course the assassination in the Old Assembly in September 1966 of HF Verwoerd and, in September 1939, the fateful and narrow decision to enter World War 2.

The ghosts of history loomed large over the place.

Back to current events, if the official version — or whatever passes for it here amid a welter of contradictory and half-baked explanations for the fire which gutted our own parliament — is to be believed, a single Cape Town vagrant put the national assembly to the torch.

John Maytham, the radio host on Cape Talk, precisely demarcated the twin tracks on which the current catastrophe should be railed: the first is who did it, and why? Was the ever-handy alibi of some destructive “third force” or “counter revolutionary” element operating as sinister hidden hand behind the blaze?

The second track is how could it be that a national key point, the structure which houses our democratic legislature and pinnacle of our constitutional order, was so open to attack? Where were the guards? Why did the fire alarm not operate? Why did no sprinklers activate to douse the flames and cauterise their spread? Why did the fire doors, recently installed, not close?

There are no ready answers to these essential questions. Or the answers at hand suggest that the immolation of parliament is simply the latest, most destructive example of an incapacitated state, peopled by absentee incompetents and littered with negligent disdain by the officials charged with safeguarding our vital institutions.

Jonathan Jansen’s chronicling of the destruction of our universities (recently fortified by another academic’s cri de coeur, The Fall of the University of Cape Town: South Africa’s Leading University in Decline by David Benatar) has sadly many extensions across the length and breadth of our misgoverned country.

My second thought following the fire was literature of another sort. It is another book set in a completely different place and ostensibly about a different subject, which offers a template of sorts for the state we are in and the people at the helm.

John Boyne’s searing 2014 novel A History of Loneliness is a terrifying and lacerating indictment of the role played by the Catholic Church in Ireland in the abuse of children and the cover-ups that ensued. A key theme in this angry lament is how the church, the most powerful institution by far in the country at the time when the novel is set, allowed the abuse to go unchecked and indeed helped its spread by simply shifting offending priests from one parish to another. The crimes thus hopscotched across the length and breadth of the Emerald Isle, following the paedophile clerics to their new locations.

In a strictly political sense, our invertebrate President Cyril Ramaphosa is guilty of a different order of culpability. He, either deliberately, or more likely with utter carelessness, simply allows one underperforming or grossly negligent minister or another to hopscotch from one portfolio to the next, heedless of the destruction that follows in their wake. Lacking the will or the courage to fire ministerial miscreants, he allows them to continue to re-enact their incompetence or worse at a different site of power.

More concerned with retaining power than using it for the public good, Ramaphosa bares considerable blame for the decimation of the state and its finest institutions, such as the 120-year-old seat of parliament in Cape Town.

Not so, according to Mapisa-Nqakula. Her defence for the most egregious destruction of parliament in the country’s history? “She could not be blamed for the disastrous blaze as she had been in office for less than three months,” according to a News24 report of her ill-tempered remarks at a media briefing on January 4.

She was in office at the time of the fire; she was and remains the responsible officer required to explain why the precincts to the building were so lightly guarded and why the security systems were non-existent.

She was of course the minister of defence in July 2021, when rampaging mobs were allowed to ravage Durban and surrounds, destroying over 300 lives and putting to the torch billions of rand worth of property, businesses and livelihoods. Her failure to act led to Ramaphosa’s decision to remove her. But either for reasons of sentiment or politics he did not bundle her into a long overdue retirement. He gave her a salary raise and packed her off to the speaker’s seat in parliament, assuming she would do less harm there …

Mapisa-Nqakula has, as they say in horse racing, considerable prior form. She was minister of defence when Air Force Base Waterkloof was breached in April 2013, when the Gupta wedding party was allowed to land there at the height of state capture. In the same year, she sent ill-prepared and underequipped SANDF troops for inexplicable (bar for Zuma’s payola from its hated ruler) reasons to the Central African Republic where 13 of them were slaughtered in “The Battle of Bangui” (subject of another fine book).

In 2017, she hit the headlines again when a lurid tale, for which her sister took the fall, emerged of smuggling a fugitive out of Burundi with false papers and on a military plane. No consequences followed this blatant and illegal misuse of state resources. So, she did it again three years later. In 2020 she misused another military aircraft to ferry ANC members in an air force jet to a private meeting with Zanu-PF bigwigs in Harare. Here Ramaphosa did his normal half-measure: he judged her guilty of “an error of judgment” and docked three months’ salary, but kept her in office. This allowed her to be in office at the time of the July insurrection with predictable results — just as her later bowler-hatting to the speaker’s throne would prove.

A history of calamities is no bar to continuing in office in the upside-down and essentially amoral world of ANC misgovernance.

But if the fetid swamp of predacious ANC politics explains why Mapisa-Nqakula and the equally culpable police minister Beke Cele (aren’t his police force charged with securing parliament and its precincts?) remain in high office, there’s no easy answer to the riddle of public works minister Patricia de Lille’s retention.

A serial party hopper (PAC-ID-DA-GOOD), her calamitous misgovernance is a matter of record. But when Ramaphosa needed to cock a snook at the DA, with whom De Lille parted on acrimonious terms, he rescued her from the backbenches in 2019 after the latest electoral performance had netted the new-old GOOD party just 0.40% of the votes and precisely two out of the 400 seats in parliament.

Presumably, Ramaphosa thought the ministerial graveyard of public works would allow De Lille some prestige minus significant power. Or he did not apply his mind to such ministerial minutiae.

De Lille soon enough proved her former party’s misgivings. First there was the disaster of the so called “border fence” at Beitbridge. Irregularities there resulted in an uncompetitive bidding process which saw R40m expended on a 40km fence proved unfit for purpose, and R14m was misspent on padded costs which landed in the pockets of the construction company. De Lille declined to take any responsibility, placing the blame on Covid-19 (for the tender irregularities) and rogue officials (for the cost inflation and kickbacks).

Two weeks ago, De Lille, unencumbered by any loyalty to any ANC cabinet colleagues nor bound by collective responsibility, promptly placed the blame at the feet of her colleague, police minister Beke Cele. She advised that parliamentary surveillance cameras were not monitored at the time the fire broke out.

The problem with this sort of deflection is that it is only one explanation (for which de Lille is not responsible) for the chain of events which eviscerated our parliament. Non-functioning fire-detection systems, non-functional fire safety equipment and a water sprinkler valve system which had not been serviced for four years. All these areas of neglect are itemised in the fire report of the city fire department, and all have a home address: the department of public works. Proper maintenance, in other words, would likely have saved much of the building and our priceless heritage.

History offers a voice from the past relevant to the smouldering ashes from our latest site of ruin. In 1790, reflecting on the French Revolution and its men of zeal and their destructiveness, Edmund Buke suggested: “You had all these advantages … but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society and had to begin everything anew. You began ill because you despised everything that once belonged to you. You set up your trade without capital.”

In our case this includes the houses of parliament, now a burnt-out memory.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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