CAPE TOWN — As a fire that gutted the country’s Parliament buildings was finally extinguished on Tuesday and a bedraggled suspect appeared in court, South Africans were struggling to understand whether the blaze was an act of sabotage, negligence or a simple crime of opportunity.
A jobless man, hard on his luck, has emerged as the central suspect. Zandile Christmas Mafe, 49, who liked to talk politics with friends, was charged on Tuesday with arson, theft, housebreaking and possession of explosives.
Police said they spotted and arrested Mr. Mafe at the Parliament complex in Cape Town shortly after the fire was reported on Sunday. Prosecutors said he was caught with stolen laptops, documents and crockery. He was also charged with breaking state security laws, because the Parliament buildings are a site of national strategic importance.
The sudden destruction of historic buildings that housed the National Assembly, and the offices of lawmakers, the governing African National Congress party and several opposition parties, has set off widespread confusion and speculation in a politically divided country. South Africa is still on edge after a wave of rioting last July, which resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people.
Flames arise from the National Assembly, the main chamber of the South African Parliament buildings, after a fire that broke out the day before restarted, in Cape Town on Monday.Credit…Rodger Bosch/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
On short notice, members of Parliament held a virtual meeting for more than three and a half hours on Tuesday, where lawmakers echoed concerns raised by the public: Were maintenance and safety protocols in the buildings too lax? Did the sprinklers fail? Why has the Parliament’s Protection Services been left without a permanent head since 2015?
And have police and prosecutors found the actual culprit?
“Why would a ‘vagrant’ wakeup and burndown parliament?” tweeted Fikile Mbalula, the minister of transport and a senior member of the A.N.C. The speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula, said she believed the fire was no accident.
Mr. Mafe appeared only briefly in a packed magistrates’ court, not far from the gutted parliamentary complex in the city center, disheveled in a faded long-sleeved gray shirt with denim shorts and dirty sneakers.
Standing behind a thick plastic screen, in place for pandemic regulations, he lowered his mask, allowing reporters to see his face.
He did not enter a plea, although his lawyer, Luvuyo Godla, said he plans to plead not guilty. He remains in custody, and prosecutors have opposed bail, citing the severity of the charges.
Mr. Godla said his client denied setting the fire or carrying an explosive device, and accused the government of scapegoating a poor man to find a suspect quickly and distract from its own failure to protect its buildings.
“What interest would that poor man have in Parliament?” Mr. Godla said, speaking to reporters on the steps of the court.
Prosecutors, however, say that they are certain they have the right man.
“He’s got a case to answer for,” Eric Ntabazalila, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said in a telephone interview. “Based on the evidence, we went to court.”
He said that more charges were likely to be filed by the next court appearance. That is scheduled for Jan. 11, to allow investigators to access the site, which remains dangerous.
Inside the small, corrugated iron shack where Mr. Mafe lives in the township of Khayelitsha, 20 miles southeast of Cape Town’s city center, neighbors said the television, satellite dish and refrigerator he owned had raised suspicion.
“He had things that people in the area who work don’t have,” said Patrick Nkwela. “How do you explain that?”
Several neighbors said Mr. Mafe had only moved into the area in August of 2021. He lived alone and seemed to know no one. He could also always afford alcohol, they said, which he drank alone.
He did not work but never missed his rent, said Wendy Luhabe, his next-door neighbor.
In Langa, a township in Cape Town where Mr. Mafe had lived for five years before moving to Khayelitsha, neighbors had a different impression of him and were surprised that he was accused of having anything to do with the Parliament fire.
They remember Mr. Mafe as respectful and timid. They called him by his middle name, Christmas, or just Chris. He liked to talk about current affairs and decried corruption, but never in a way that felt threatening. A friend, Doreen Lekoma, said he’d worked for a bread factory but had lost that job earlier in 2021.
When she bumped into him in July, she said, he looked disheveled, and was carrying an ironing board and other belongings. She said she had seen him again on Dec. 26, and he had looked hungry and confused, so she gave him a meal.
His former girlfriend, Mbinde Andoni, said she last saw him on Christmas Day. The next time she saw him was in news footage from court, and she was shocked to see he was wearing the same gray shirt and denim shorts.
“He was clearly sleeping on streets. How would he know how to get into Parliament, what important areas and documents to burn? It doesn’t add up,” said Ms. Andoni.
As South Africans watched smoke billow from the entrance of the National Assembly, its chambers gutted and roof collapsed, the sense of unease from the July unrest returned.
“The trust deficit between South African citizens and the government is just yawning at this point,” said Ziyanda Stuurman, an independent security analyst and a former researcher at Parliament.
The state has yet to provide a “satisfactory answer” about the July unrest, and yet again, politicians are seen to be deflecting questions about security, instead of winning public confidence, she added.
Opposition politicians raised questions about why the sprinkler system reportedly kicked in only after firefighters had arrived on the scene. A parliamentarian belonging to a faction aligned with the former president, Jacob Zuma, demanded to see security camera evidence of the suspect entering Parliament, and circulated an image said to be Mr. Mafe, in the same clothes he wore in court, asleep on a Cape Town sidewalk.
Others questioned the timing of the fire — just days before the president and Parliament were to receive the first part of a report of a large-scale commission looking into corruption under the government of Mr. Zuma, the former president. On Tuesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mr. Zuma’s former deputy and now rival, received the first part of the report and made it public.
The fire decimated the interior of a complex made up of three conjoined buildings built between the 1880s and expanded more than a century later, spanning the country’s transition from colony to apartheid regime to constitutional democracy.
More than 60 firefighters battled the blaze, supported by crew from South Africa’s Air Force. At one point, the wind was so strong that firefighters pulled what one official called “death-defying Spider-Man moves,” climbing up the side of the building to prevent the fire from sweeping into Tuynhuys, the official office of the president.
Zanele Mji reported from Cape Town, and Lynsey Chutel from Johannesburg.