Parliamentary precinct fire demands accountability and responsibility

The search for answers begins with legislation.

In his book titled, Building Maintenance, Seeley (1976) inked his observations about “maintenance” as follows:

  • It is unfortunate that building maintenance is regarded by many as the ‘Cinderella’ activity.
  • It possesses little glamour,
  • It is unlikely to attract much attention, and
  • It is often regarded as unproductive although many of the related technical and managerial problems are more demanding of ingenuity and skill than those of new works.

Perhaps, the fire that recently engulfed Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Gauteng and Mmabatho Palms Hotel in the North-West, was in part due to the above misperceptions? Even the country’s parliamentary precinct in Cape Town has recently been victim to this reality – and many more examples of buildings ravaged by fire and/or with poor general upkeep can be cited – forcing us to ask when this cycle of neglect will come to an end?

To make sense of who should answer questions regarding the fire at the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town, it is necessary to highlight the following:

Occupational Health & Safety Act.

The aim of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS Act) is to provide for the health and safety of persons in the workplace, in connection with the use of plant and machinery, and protection of people other than people at work from hazards arising out of or in connection with the activities from people at work. The OHS Act is enforced by the Department of Employment and Labour, whose inspectors may:

  • Enter any workplace without prior notice,
  • Request any document,
  • Inspect any condition, process, plant, or article,
  • Take samples or seize any article, and
  • Question or summon any person within the workplace.

The following sections of the OHS Act are relevant:

Section 16(1)- Chief Executive Officer (CEO) charged with certain duties:

Every CEO shall as far as is reasonably practicable, ensure that the duties of his employer, as contemplated in this Act, are properly discharged.

Section 16(2)- Assistant to the CEO:

Without derogating from his responsibility or liability in terms of subsection (1), a CEO may assign any duty contemplated in the said subsection, to any person under his control, which person shall act subject to the control and directions of the CEO.

Section 16(3)-

The provisions of subsection (1) shall not, subject to the provisions of section 37, relieve an employer of any responsibility or liability under this Act.

Section 16(4)-

For the purpose of subsection (1), the head of department of any department of State shall be deemed to be the CEO of that department.

The information on the parliamentary website specifies the following:

“The Speaker of the National Assembly is responsible for provision of quality support services to the House. The administrative element of this responsibility has been delegated to the Secretary to Parliament as the Accounting Officer in terms of Parliamentary Services Act, the National Assembly Rules, and the New Governance Model.”

Considering Section 16(4) of the OHS Act and the above extract from the parliamentary website, it can be inferred that the Secretary to Parliament is the Head of Department (Accounting Officer) and is thus the CEO of Parliament in terms of Section 16(1) of the OHS Act.

Since the administrative elements of the responsibilities of the Speaker of the National Assembly have been delegated to the Secretary to Parliament, the former is accountable, while the latter is responsible, for the fire that gutted parliament. However, this does not necessarily mean that either party was negligent in performing their duties, particularly as investigations are yet to be concluded.

The Speaker of the National Assembly and the Secretary to Parliament must explain what they have done within their line of work, as far as it is reasonably practicable to avoid such an incident. Whereas the CEO may appoint the Assistant CEO in terms of Section 16(2) of the OHS Act, or even technical personnel in terms of the General Machinery Regulations, these appointees must, as determined by the OHS Act, explain what preventative measures they have undertaken in their professional capacity. Yet only the outcome of the investigation will determine what transpired and ensure the negligent and/or criminal are charged accordingly.

Department of Public Works & Infrastructure

The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPW&I) is the mandated custodian and portfolio manager of the national government’s immovable assets. The DPW&I has the following responsibilities, amongst others:

  • As handyman of the state,
  • As leader of the expanded public works programme (EPWP),
  • As regulator, and
  • As asset manager.

Schedule A15 Maintenance and Operation of the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act No. 103 of 1977 (as amended) indicates the following:

(1)

    • The owner of any building shall ensure that any mechanical equipment, facility, or any service installation provided in or in connection with such building, pursuant to these regulations or pursuant to any building bylaw which was in operation prior to the coming into operation of the Act, shall be maintained in a safe and functional condition.
    • Such owner or any person appointed by such owner to be in control of such building shall ensure that where such equipment, facility or installation is designed to be kept operating during the times of normal occupancy of the building, it is kept operating in such a manner as to attain any standard of performance prescribed in these regulations or in any by-law for such equipment or installation.

(2)

The owner of any building shall ensure that pursuant to these regulations or pursuant to any building by-law that was in operation prior to the coming into operation of the Act, the following is maintained in accordance with the requirements of the relevant functional regulations contained in Regulations B, H, J, K and L:

    • the structural safety performance (behaviour of buildings under all actions that can be reasonably expected to occur);
    • the measures taken to resist the penetration of rainwater and the passage of moisture into the interior of a building.

To the extent that the DPW&I is the custodian of government infrastructure, it is appropriate to ascertain the extent of their oversights in general upkeep on the parliamentary precinct.

In this regard, some examples are, checking compliance to legislation, the existence of the system of preventive maintenance, execution of building condition assessment, safety/statutory tests, the execution of regular maintenance, and so on.

The way forward

The above excerpts clearly outline the role of each stakeholder regarding the general upkeep of infrastructure. The Department of Employment and Labour and the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure must thus demonstrate, with tangible proof, their proactive actions – in terms of their legislative mandate, accountability and/or responsibility – to prevent the fire incident that occurred at the parliamentary precinct.

Technical specialists and experts will proceed to the facility to investigate and gather evidence from the site, and this will ultimately confirm whether proactive measures were in place prior to the incident, and who should truly be charged for negligence.

The services offered by Kurumeng

Kurumeng offers a ‘Condition Assessment’ service in the form of walk-through inspections and an engineering performance analysis of properties, plant, and equipment. The outcome is a practical report on the infrastructure health status, outlining of opportunities for improvements and related costing. Further modalities of this service include the following:

    • Ensure that the Client complies with the provisions and regulations of the Occupation Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993.
    • Implement a system of preventive maintenance.
    • Ensure that all statutory machinery and equipment inspections are being conducted and maintained.
    • Report all deviations and areas of non-compliance to the Chief Executive Officer.
    • Ensure that the reporting structure as per the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 is implemented and adhered to.

Clients are encouraged not to wait for things to fall apart but rather take pre-emptive action using Kurumeng’s professional services.

Get in touch – we’d love to help!

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Kabelo Mocwane

Kabelo Mocwane

Kabelo Mocwane, the founder of Kurumeng, is an experienced Operations and Facilities leader with over 16 years of technical and management experience, spanning across power systems, energy efficiency, renewable generation, water infrastructure, facilities maintenance, construction management and legal compliance (OHS Act).