Year later, inferno still haunts SA Parliament

Country is split on whether to move House to Pretoria or rebuild in Cape Town

In Summary

• Hotels benefiting from largesse in Cape Town are fighting hard to retain House

Image: OZONE

It's been a year since the outbreak of a fire that gutted South Africa’s National Assembly building here in Cape Town.

For almost three days, the fire tore through the five floors of the Assembly building and the adjacent Old Assembly Wing, collapsing the roof and destroying hundreds of offices that housed MPs, parliamentary staff and contents essential to the business operation of the institution. 

The unimaginable disaster compounded Parliament’s infrastructure challenges by reducing the number of buildings available for the institution to conduct its business and set itself back by a decade in respect of the destruction of technology and broadcast infrastructure used to enhance public access and involvement in the National Assembly’s processes. 

The fire also occurred while the institution was recovering from the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whatever else the fire destroyed or damaged, it did not appear to have affected Parliament’s resilience. The business of the House continued, with the National Assembly finding alternative venues and optimising the use of technology. 

After the fire, the ongoing debate amongst Capetonians and other citizens of South Africa as to whether Parliament should just be moved to the Union Buildings in Pretoria once and for all became even more animated for a while.

Since the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the seat of Parliament has been in Cape Town, while the administrative seat has been housed in Pretoria.

Those who would see the MPs moved to the Union Buildings, which form the official seat of the South African government and also house the offices of the President of South Africa, including the third-largest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

They have tabled a new private members' bill, laying the groundwork for Parliament to be moved from Cape Town to Pretoria.

The EFF argues that Parliament’s current location in Cape Town creates several problems for MPs, the executive, government and officials from organs of state and the broader society that wishes to participate in legislative and oversight functions performed by Parliament.

They claim that Parliament is located in the farthest province from the majority of provinces, making it inaccessible to the majority of South Africans.

The debate has been bubbling for a long time. In 2016, former President Jacob Zuma proposed the National Assembly’s relocation to Pretoria.

At the time, he said he believed the implementation of the suggestion would cut the cost of public servants. 

Currently, ministers have two official residences in Pretoria and Cape Town, and two official cars, paid for by taxpayers. They and their senior officials also commute between the two cities, which are the seats of the executive and the legislature, respectively, on official duties, costing hundreds of millions of rand per year.

The main argument by those against the relocation of Parliament is that It would be a mistake to get the centres of government centralised in one area.

Then there are the Cape Town hotels that make a killing during grand state occasions, such as the forthcoming state opening of Parliament and the annual budget. They would not relish losing the prospect of such easy cash, and if they were asked, things would stay as they are.

Some of the bigger hotels in Cape Town even have dedicated sales staff whose job it is to go soliciting government ministries and state-owned enterprises in Pretoria and Johannesburg for business.

In 2021, an economist estimated that moving the Parliament from Cape Town to Pretoria could cost an estimated R7 billion, but in the long run would save the government about R650 million a year. 

No matter how the debate eventually goes, for the time being, nothing has been decided. And in the meantime, life must go on.

Late in 2022, South Africa’s Finance Minister used the Mid-Term Budget Policy Statement to set aside R2 billion for the restoration of the damaged parliamentary buildings. The money will enable Parliament’s accelerated recovery and return to full operations. 

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