Homeless Man Charged With Terrorism After Allegedly Setting South African Parliament Fire

A homeless man who allegedly set a fire that destroyed parts of South Africa's Parliament complex has been charged with terrorism. Zandile Mafe, 49, was already facing charges of housebreaking with intent to steal, theft, arson and possession of an explosive device, but the new charge was added on Tuesday.

The fire at the historic Cape Town Parliament complex began on January 2, and it took firefighters four days to fully put out the flames. The main chamber of the National Assembly building, where the nation's Parliament sits, was destroyed, while other buildings received extensive damage.

Because Parliament was closed at the time for the end of the year holidays, no deaths or injuries were reported. But about 300 firefighters, some using cranes, had to work for more than 70 hours total to extinguish the fire.

The 130-year-old complex has housed South Africa's legislature since the country's British colonial era in the late 1800s. Authorities said that Mafe, described in court as being homeless, was arrested with an explosive device at the scene of the fire on the day it started.

Mafe appeared in court in Cape Town Tuesday for a bail hearing, state broadcaster SABC reported.

Parliament Fire Case
A homeless man who allegedly set a fire that destroyed parts of South Africa’s Parliament complex has been charged with terrorism. Zandile 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. Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

The size of the fire and damage caused immediately raised concerns that there had been an intentional attack on South Africa's seat of democracy.

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.

The case has taken a number of strange turns since Mafe was first implicated, including rumors circulating online that Mafe received military training in Russia. That was denied by his family.

Mafe has denied the charges against him and his defense lawyer claimed he is being used as a scapegoat to cover up failings in Parliament security.

Questions remain over 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 development on Tuesday when lawyer Dali Mpofu, who is a prominent member of an opposition political party in South Africa, appeared at the Cape Town courthouse and said he was joining Mafe's defense team.

Mpofu is also defending former South African president Jacob Zuma in his corruption trial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

South African Parliament Fire
The fire at South Africa's historic Parliament complex began on January 2, and it took firefighters four days to fully stamp out the flames. Flames are seen rising from the Parliament building in Cape Town on January 3, 2022. Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images