A man suspected of starting a devastating fire that gutted South Africa’s parliament made his second appearance in court on Tuesday.

The blaze broke out in the Cape Town complex before dawn on January 2, spreading to the National Assembly, the roof of which collapsed.

Zandile Christmas Mafe, 49, was arrested around the complex the same day and made his first brief court appearance three days later.

He initially faced charges of breaking into parliament, arson and intention to steal property, including laptops, crockery and documents.

Since his arrest, debate has raged in South Africa over whether Mafe, described in the local media as homeless, was responsible for setting the building on fire.

Ahead of the hearing on Tuesday, a group of around 30 people, picketed outside the Cape Town magistrate court demanding Mafe be freed, brandishing handwritten signs such as “Free Mafe”, “He is innocent” and “He is not guilty”.

One homeless person recounted the events of the night the fire started. He was sleeping on a street near the parliament complex and heard a sound like a car collision. He later suspected that was the break-in before the fire started.
A preliminary report by the city of Cape Town last week said the fire detection system appeared “faulty”, and that “sprinklers did not activate” and that they were last serviced in 2017, missing a February 2020 scheduled service.

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

No casualties were reported in the fire, but the extensive damage has shaken the country and forced the authorities to move the annual state-of-the-nation address to be delivered next month by President Cyril Ramaphosa to an alternative venue in Cape Town.

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