At least 1,000 parliamentary employees will not be reporting for duty until the fire-gutted building precinct is declared safe to work in.
CAPE TOWN – As plans move ahead to host this year’s State of the Nation address (Sona) at the Cape Town City Hall, at least 1,000 parliamentary employees will not be reporting for duty until the gutted building precinct is declared safe to work in.
Following the devastating fire that ravaged the National Assembly and several floors of office space, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu)’s branch executive committee (BEC) in Parliament said its members were anxious and feared for their lives.
The BEC on Friday wrote to National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Amos Masondo, saying they weren’t persuaded that Parliament would be able to contain another fire outbreak.
The union also based its decision on the fire and safety report compiled by the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services, which found among others that the National Assembly sprinkler valve had not been serviced since 2017 and was closed at the time of the fire.
“In arriving at its resolution to withdraw its members from Parliament, the BEC relied on the provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (No 85 of 1993) which stipulates that employers have a duty to ensure a safe and healthy working environment and, as far as reasonably possible, may not allow employees to do any work unless the necessary precautionary measures have been taken to protect their health and safety in the workplace.
“Considering the recent fire that engulfed our workplace, the BEC is convinced that the actions of the employer are not consonant with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and related regulations,” the letter read.
The Parliamentary office, in a statement, said it noted Nehawu’s letter.
Parliament said its accounting officer had on January 2 issued a communication to members of staff, informing them of restricted access to the precincts.
“Due to these restrictions, the physical presence of most staff members, with the exception of the management directly responsible for the management of the fire incident, is not expected until further notice.
“Parliament has noted a public statement by Nehawu, which organises staff of Parliament, that it has instructed its members not to report to the precincts of Parliament due to alleged occupational safety and health issues.
“We reiterate that the report of the Fire and Rescue Services only contains preliminary observations of the firefighters during the course of their work. It neither purports to provide conclusive findings and evidence regarding the cause and the circumstances surrounding the fire incident nor provides assessment of the safety of the other parliamentary buildings not affected by fire.
“The Presiding Officers of Parliament remain committed to the spirit of the discussion last week between the Speaker of the National Assembly and the leadership of the union, which includes a series of further engagements to try resolve the union’s grievances and work together in the aftermath of the fire incident.
“Public exchanges during this time of crisis remain unhelpful and may serve to negatively affect the ongoing process of implementing the institutional business continuity and recovery plan.”
The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure said it was aware of the City’s report, although the fire was still under investigation.
“The relevant buildings are assessed annually by the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue ahead of the preparations of the Sona for by-laws relating to community fire safety concerns. On receipt of these reports, the department initiates the necessary servicing and, once all servicing is completed, the department collects all certificates of compliance and servicing records and submits these to the Provincial Joint Operations Centre.
“The regional office has confirmed that this practice was also conducted ahead of both Sona 2019 and Sona 2020 and 2021 events. Subsequent to the servicing ahead of 2021 Sona, there was a widespread power outage across the Cape Town CBD on the December 17, 2021, resulting in additional checks of the fire systems. The fire systems were reset, checked and confirmed functional by contractors on December 21, 2021 following the power outage,” said the department.
It could take up to five years to complete repairs to Parliament, according to Ben Maswinga, the South African National Heritage Resource Agenc (Sahra)’s manager of the built environment unit.
“Parliament is both a national key point as well as a national heritage site; it’s very early to tell, but the estimated figure at this point is over a billion rand. It’s going to need a great deal of resources to fix this in terms of expertise, such as material analysis and restoration architects, heritage architects and engineers. It will be a monumental task,” Mwasinga said.
* Additional reporting by Rafieka Williams.