The Sunday World newspaper has rejected Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe's denial that he claimed to have paid bribes to two of its reporters to bury an article about his alleged extramarital sex exploits.
Mantashe issued a curt statement on Tuesday morning denying the claims. "The statement attributed to [Mantashe] seems to have created an impression of him being involved in the act of bribery. Mr Mantashe is clear that none of the sort occurred.
"Further, attested to by the newspaper, there was no verification of these allegations prior to the publication of the story," the statement read.
But Sunday World editor Makhudu Sefara has hit back, saying he recorded his conversation with Mantashe. He challenged the minister to sue the newspaper.
"We reject the claim by the minister that he never said he paid two journalists. Not only did he say this to the reporter; I as the editor also called him to verify the claims that were in the article before me. Mr Mantashe, in very clear terms, told me that he paid the reporter's colleagues," Sefara told News24 on Tuesday.
Between a rock and a hard place
"Mr Mantashe is now between a rock and a hard place. He made the claim without, I suppose, applying his mind clearly to the seriousness of the claims he was making. Now, when he is required to provide evidence to back up his own claims, he changes his mind. He can't have his cake and eat it.
"We will contradict whatever Mr Mantashe is saying to distance himself from the case."
Sefara said he suspected Mantashe was "bluffing" to stop the newspaper from publishing the article about his affair.
"He decided in his bad PR strategy, to focus on deflecting attention by making claims he thought we would not have the courage to publish.
"If he had done any basic research about who I am as an editor, he would know I don't play games. He can't make claims that he paid two journalists and, when he's called upon to name the journalists or provide the evidence, he doesn't want to.
"If Mr Mantashe is so convinced that we misquoted him, and implicated him in criminal conduct, as the editor, I challenge him to sue us. He must go to court. We have our ducks in a row," Sefara said.
On Sunday, the newspaper published a response from Mantashe, claiming that he declined to answer their questions about a love triangle story involving him, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and Lerato Habiba Makgatho.
According to the response the newspaper published, he said he begged two journalists not to publish the story and paid them R70 000. However, he would not reveal their names and said the publication could go ahead and write the story as that was his comment.
The DA has asked Parliament's Joint Committee on Ethics and Members' Interests to probe conduct relating to Mantashe and claims that he bribed two journalists, News24 reported on Monday.
The South African National Editors' Forum also condemned the allegations, calling Mantashe's reported admission "brazen".
The Tiso Blackstar group, the previous publisher of Sunday World, said on Sunday it "noted with shock the alleged admission by a sitting government minister to have corruptly bribed two Sunday World journalists".