Our Reichstag firelighter

Andrew Donaldson writes on the parliamentary arsonists Zandile Christmas Mafe and Marinus van der Lubbe


FOURTEEN months have passed since the new National Assembly chamber in the parliamentary complex went up in flames and only now has there been an announcement about the proposed reconstruction of the building. According to Xolile George, the parliament secretary, it’s going to cost R2-billion and could take at least two years to complete.

At least two years? There is a remote possibility the authorities will by then have some idea of the mental state of arson accused Zandile Christmas Mafe and whether or not he is fit to stand trial for torching the place. 

His psychiatric evaluation has progressed at a rate that could be described, at a push, as “glacial” and he accordingly remains an enigma where the courts are concerned. 

Mafe, now 50, was arrested in the parliamentary precinct on 2 January, 2022, as firefighters battled to control the blaze. He appeared briefly in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court two days later. A district surgeon’s assessment that Mafe was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia resulted in a referral to Valkenberg Hospital for 30 days’ observation. 

Mafe’s senior counsel, Dali Mpofu (none other), then mounted a strident objection to said referral which was duly set aside by then Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe on 19 January. Out of Valkenberg, then, and into Pollsmoor Prison, where, denied bail, he has remained ever since. 


The matter drags on. Mafe, incidentally, has indicated that he intends pleading not guilty to arson and terrorism-related charges. He then refused to attend a number of pre-trial High Court hearings. 

At one such no-show, in September, his exasperated lawyer, Luvuyo Godla, told the court, “Briefly, my lord, we have a problem. Mr Mafe has got some complaints.” His client was reportedly on a hunger strike, “lying on his back, in his pyjamas” and bitterly unhappy about the way his trial was progressing. 

Demands that a flatscreen TV, a radio and a kettle with a supply of coffee be installed in his cell suggest other areas of dissatisfaction. Godla later told journalists: “He [also] complains that the water is very cold for a bath [at Pollsmoor Prison]. It should come as no surprise that the correctional services people have been somewhat dismissive of these concerns. Life behind bars is evidently no picnic.

Mafe has however turned up in court for subsequent hearings. In November, his legal team indicated that their client had now agreed to undergo psychiatric evaluation after all, but is adamant that he will not return to Valkenberg. His brief experience of the place had apparently been rather chastening.

Alternatives had to be found. Two other Western Cape institutions were considered: Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital and Stikland Hospital. But these were classed as “rehabilitative” facilities and thus unsuitable for “observational” purposes. Accordingly, there is now chatter that Mafe may be evaluated outside the province, perhaps even in the Eastern Cape. He’s due back in court on Friday, 17 March.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, an investigation is underway to determine the mindset of another arsonist, Marinus van der Lubbe. 

He, too, was accused of torching a parliament building, this time Germany’s Reichstag. Monday marked the 90th anniversary of this catastrophic event, which resulted in the abolishment of a number of constitutional protections and paved the way for the Nazi dictatorship.

At the time, Adolf Hitler had been chancellor for less than a month and he and his allies claimed the fire was part of a larger communist conspiracy and the precursor to full-blown revolution. 

Like Mafe, Van der Lubbe was arrested at the scene of the crime. He too admitted that he had started the fire. Unlike Mafe, however, he was swiftly tried, convicted and beheaded on 10 January, 1934. 

While the Nazis continued to insist that he had not acted alone, the communists argued that Van der Lubbe was merely a lowly pawn in a Nazi plot to use the destruction of the Reichstag as a pretext to seizing power. Some even believe the Nazis had started the fire themselves. 

Hardline Stalinists, meanwhile, mounted a slander campaign against Van der Lubbe. As his trial progressed, they publicly accused him of being a Nazi stooge and demanded his execution for “having worked against the proletariat”. The conspiracy theories have been raging ever since. 

The suggestion that Van der Lubbe was merely the “fall guy” in a fiendish plot does rather strain credibility. Too pat a patsy, in other words. 

He was born into poverty in 1909 and was orphaned at 12. He joined the Dutch Communist Party at 16. His career as a mason ended when an industrial accident left him half-blind and he became a full-time activist. In 1931, he moved to Germany, where he joined the communist underground and where he considered burning down state buildings in the belief that such “exemplary action” would “awaken” the German proletariat and stir them to revolt. 

He launched his campaign three days before the Reichstag blaze, attempting to set fire to the Imperial Palace in Berlin, the town hall and, for good measure, a public lavatory. None of these arson attacks succeeded.

It was a different matter with the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe was arrested inside the building as the fire was spreading. He told police officers he had acted alone and his Gestapo interrogator could not decide whether he was an idiot or “one cool customer”.

Many felt the swift arrest of a communist and self-confessed arsonist was a bit too convenient, even for a stitch-up. Walter Gempp, the head of the Berlin fire department, had been at the Reichstag and personally directed attempts to control the blaze. A month later, he was dismissed from his post for suggesting Nazi involvement in the fire. He had charged that there had been a significant delay in notifying the fire brigade about the blaze, thus allowing it to take hold. He also claimed that he’d been forbidden from making use of the firefighting resources at his disposal. 

Gempp was later arrested and jailed for “abuse of office”. In 1939, he was strangled in his prison cell by unknown assailants. 

1955 affidavit from Martin Lennings, a former member of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi paramilitary unit, cast further doubt on Van der Lubbe’s culpability. In this document, first published in 2019, Lennings stated that he and his fellow paramilitaries had driven Van der Lubbe to the Reichstag on 27 February, the night of the fire. Smoke was billowing from the building when they arrived, he said.

Lennings, who died in 1962, further stated that he and other members of his squad had protested the arrest of Van der Lubbe “because according to our observation, the Reichstag had already been burning when we dropped him off there”. 

Lennings also claimed that he and the other witnesses were detained and forced to sign a paper that denied any knowledge of the incident. Later, nearly all of those with knowledge of the Reichstag fire were executed. Lennings said that he had been warned of this and escaped to Czechoslovakia.

The day after the blaze, and at Hitler’s urging, President Hindenburg signed the Reichstag Fire Decree into law. The mass arrests of communists, including all the communist Reichstag delegates, immediately followed. This put paid to communist participation in the 5 March elections, and their absence gave the Nazis their majority in the Reichstag. On 9 March, the Comintern operatives Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev and Blagoy Popov were arrested. Together with Ernst Torgler, the chairman of the German CP, they would tried along with Van der Lubbe. All four would be acquitted.

The trial ran from 21 September to 23 December. During proceedings, Van der Lubbe appeared to be “of almost imbecile appearance”; dirty and dishevelled, he was incoherent and barely capable of speech. At the time, it was widely speculated that he had been dosed with scopolamine, a powerful drug falsely thought to be a truth serum. This would either have been to facilitate a truthful confession or to ensure his silence about possible co-conspirators. Its side-effects include drowsiness and confusion.

After his execution, Van der Lubbe was buried in a Leipzig cemetery. On 25 January this year his remains were exhumed and sent to Leipzig University Hospital for toxicology tests. A pathology report is expected later this month. If Van der Lubbe had indeed been drugged, this will hopefully provide further evidence of the Nazis’ determination to pin the blame for the Reichstag fire on the hapless Dutchman.

Most historians dismiss the “Nazi plot” theory, and instead regard the Reichstag fire as an event that proved to be an unexpected gift for Hitler. Others, however, are not convinced, and are puzzled that the near-blind Van der Lubbe, who had no insider knowledge of the Reichstag layout and only a couple of basic coal lighters at his disposal, was able to reduce the entire plenary chamber to a smouldering ruin within a couple of hours. The debate will no doubt continue.

None of this, of course, suggests any significant correlation or parallel with Mafe and the blaze that destroyed the National Assembly building. There is, however, one meaningful similarity. Both are symbolic of broader attacks on constitutional democracy. 

As the DA chief whip Siviwe Gwarube told the Cape Town Press Club recently, our parliament has been “hollowed out, purposefully” over decades as part of a “systematic strategy” by the ruling party. As she put it: 

“It has been rendered redundant to shield incompetent and corrupt politicians from scrutiny despite their betrayal of their oath of office … It was no doubt epitomised by the fire that gutted the precinct last year. The once beautiful, majestic House where laws of democratic South Africa were passed is gone. It lies in rubble a full year later.

“To date, we are yet to see the outcome of the internal investigations which sheds light into what happened that day and why the fire was able to ravage through a large chunk of the parliamentary buildings. We still don’t know the motive or who ought to be held accountable for the many mitigation measures which never kicked into gear.”

So, at least two years and R2-billion to repair the National Assembly chamber? That may well be, although I have my doubts. When it comes to construction work, costs are known to escalate at an alarming rate. And delays are inevitable. Perhaps we should rather be concerned with the restoration of effective government and a meaningful democracy.