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South African parliament fire suspect charged with terrorism offences

A man suspected of starting a fire that gutted South Africa’s parliament appeared in court for a second time to face a new charge of terrorism, in addition to robbery and arson charges.

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

The magistrate, Zamekile Mbalo, granted prosecutors a month’s delay to determine Mafe’s mental state and whether he was fit for trial following a diagnosis that he was schizophrenic.

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

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

The new charge said the “accused is guilty” of contravening laws on 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 fire broke out before dawn on 2 January, spreading to the national assembly, the roof of which collapsed.

A defence lawyer, Dali Mpofu, said Mafe underwent mental observation on 3 January and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Mpofu is one of South Africa’s most famous lawyers, whose high-profile clients have included the former president Jacob Zuma. He said Mafe was seeking bail.

Mafe has vowed that if “he is not released from custody, as from this moment, he will embark on a hunger strike”, Mpofu told the court.

Mpofu said that Mafe, who has been widely described in local media 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”.

Mpofu said his client believed he was being “victimised and targeted particularly because he is poor”.

Another defence lawyer, Luvuyo Godla, told reporters they were appearing pro bono (without charge) for Mafe.

In contrast to his first court appearance, where he was bearded and dressed in a grey shirt with knee-length denim shorts, on Tuesday Mafe arrived clean shaven in a light blue shirt and a dark jacket.

He turned towards photographers when he entered the court, later repeatedly shaking his head from side to side and taking off his mask.

Since his arrest, debate has raged in South Africa over whether Mafe was responsible for setting the building on fire. Protesters outside the court on Tuesday demanded his release, saying he was a scapegoat.

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

Surveillance cameras placed Mafe in the building precinct at about 2.00am (00.00 GMT). “However, security only saw him at 6am, when they looked at the screens after being alerted by the smoke,” the public works minister, Patricia de Lille, told AFP last week. “Certainly, there was a security breach,” she said.

A preliminary report by the city of Cape Town last week said the fire detection system appeared faulty, and that “sprinklers did not activate”.

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

The fire has shaken South Africa, and president Cyril Ramaphosa said at the weekend that such incidents undermined the country’s security and stability.

However, historic treasures housed in the parliament complex that were initially feared destroyed were spared, parliament said last week.

The museum including artworks and heritage objects such as the Keiskama tapestry on the ground floor of the old assembly building were saved, it said in a statement.


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