Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and the Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi brief the media on an attempted burning down of the Civitas Building in Pretoria. Picture: SUPPLIED/GCIS
Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and the Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi brief the media on an attempted burning down of the Civitas Building in Pretoria. Picture: SUPPLIED/GCIS

Arson had been committed at the department of health’s Civitas Building in Pretoria in order "to exploit and exacerbate the legitimate grievances of employees", two ministers said on Friday at a media briefing.

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi and public works minister Thulas Nxesi briefed the media on this week’s attempt to burn down the building. A fire broke out on the 14th floor on Thursday afternoon while there were people in the building, but the fire alarms went off and staff were able to extinguish the blaze.

The ministers said in a statement that this was the second arson attempt this week. The first was on Tuesday, in the basement of the building.

"Civitas is a state-of-the-art building, which has been poorly maintained, and public works must take responsibility for that," the ministers said. "Poor maintenance, in part, resulted in malfunctioning of the airconditioning, in particular. As a result, employees — quite legitimately — protested against their working conditions."

The ministers insisted that the heat ventilation and air conditioning and cooling system had to be functional at all times because the building had no windows that opened. Employees said the building was inhabitable because of this system was not working.

"However, we strongly reject the sensationalist headlines suggesting that the department of health’s Civitas building is a death trap, because the building has never been declared uninhabitable by all appropriate and authorised institutions that undertook an assessment of the building.

"We are working jointly – as the departments of public works and health — to implement interim and long-term solutions — in terms of immediate repairs, longer term refurbishment and making available alternative accommodation in the interim."

The ministers said the Civitas building had the necessary smoke detectors, fire alarm, integrated sprinkler system, fire hose reels and potable fire extinguishers which were the prerequisites of a safe building. All of these were presently functioning except the integrated sprinkler system which did not have enough pressure and which the Department of Public Works was working on.

"What has come to light over the past two weeks, which has intensified this week, are deliberate acts of sabotage, which are targeting these five fire features to make them dysfunctional at the Civitas building. We are now dealing with a concerted campaign of criminal, and potentially lethal, sabotage."

Examples included the wiring of airconditioning units being cut shortly after having been repaired by contractors, the disabling of smoke detectors and security cameras and the breaking of locks and forced entry to the building and control rooms. Several cases have been reported to the police.

"We condemn these acts of criminal sabotage. which are life-threatening," the ministers said. "We call on law enforcement to investigate these criminal activities. We will also be intensifying the security on our buildings.

"We are bound to suspect a hidden hand at work here. Are we witnessing new tactics in the ‘fight-back’ by state capture forces, which [public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan] talks about? After all, part of state capture involved elements within the security apparatus, also suspected of being responsible for attacks on organisations seen to be fighting corruption.

"We are now in the era of what minister Gordhan calls ‘Bell-Pottinger phase 2’, where individuals and ministers seen to be fighting state capture and corruption will be targeted or smeared. This narrative is growing."