There it was, the "but" at the end of the ANC’s statement. The sentence read: "The ANC supports the freedom of the press but believes that such freedom should be exercised with care and responsibility."
What the party was calling for — and has been demanding for decades — is that the media allow it to perform its internal machinations without public scrutiny. The country’s free and independent media have refused to play this game, and the party has become annoyed, at times threatening tribunals and security-related clampdowns, which have come to nothing because the constitution stands in their way.
And so, when the Sunday Times reported on a gathering at a Durban hotel of party secretary-general Ace Magashule, deposed North West premier Supra Mahumapelo and ousted president Jacob Zuma, among others, it chose to attack the media. Denying that the meeting had taken place at all must have been tempting, but this had become impossible due to the publication of a photograph of the congregants in the foyer of the Maharani hotel, which showed Magashule consulting his phone while Zuma clutched a folder of documents with Mahumapelo looking on.
The party’s spokesperson, Pule Mabe, had to resort to bluster. He said: "The ANC will not dignify these blatant lies and fabrications with a detailed response. However, we would like to point out that we refute this shameless gossip. We also reject attempts to link our secretary-general, Cde Ace Magashule, to this alleged plot to oust the president of the ANC, Cde Cyril Ramaphosa. It is clear that this malicious gossip is calculated to cast aspersions on the integrity and commitment of our secretary-general to the unity and renewal project of the African National Congress."
No-one expected a "detailed response" from the ANC. All the party had to do was finish this simple sentence: "Ace Magashule, Supra Mahumapelo, Jacob Zuma and ANC Women’s League secretary-general Meokgo Matuba met at the Maharani hotel in Durban on Thursday to discuss …"
The problem, of course, is that completing this simple sentence with a climax that is both credible and innocent of political plotting is nigh impossible.
It is hard to imagine there was any actual party business that would require the presence of this array of divergent persons at an urgent meeting in Durban, and, until evidence to the contrary emerges, it must be assumed to have been a meeting of the Committee to Re-elect President Jacob Zuma or his proxy.
More revealing was the reaction of the ANC’s chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, who said the "alleged clandestine plot, which regrettably includes the SG comrade Ace Magashule, undermines the unity and renewal efforts of the ANC." Mthembu was in no doubt that this meeting could only be aimed at restoring the Zuma dynasty to the throne now occupied by Cyril Ramaphosa.
It is easy to see why the meeting is causing nightmares for many. There is surely nothing more frightening than the prospect of the state being recaptured by Zuma and his cronies, which would see a return to the grand self-enrichment schemes that are being laid bare by the state capture commission.
The Sunday Times suggested that the group wished to challenge the outcome of the Nasrec conference because it believed there had been irregularities.
This is not nearly as farfetched as it sounds.
For some of the persons gathered at the Maharani on Thursday, the crisis is real. Their misdeeds face months of exposure before the state capture commission and a mounting pile of criminal charges, which carry serious sentences.
There can be no doubt that the ANC is fraught with division — public statements of loyalty and unity notwithstanding.
Imagining that anti-press bluster will heal its internal wounds is fantasy. It would be wise to follow Mthembu’s injunction to get to the bottom of this plot before it succeeds in pushing SA back into the arms of the hyenas.