Cape Town lobbyists Ethicore said on Monday that it had reported "intimidation, threats of bodily harm and death on our families and ourselves" to the South African Police Service, and that investigations were under way.
"We really are not sure who these parties may be," said associate director Wisahl Jappie about anonymous threatening emails and calls the company has received.
As first reported by the Mail & Guardian, Ethicore had apparently been selected as the local partner of Washington lobbying firm Public Affairs Engagement (PAE) for a campaign of persuasion that was due to launch in mid-January. Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi described the campaign as the equivalent of genocide and a range of political groups and non-governmental organisations condemned it as a threat to democracy.
But Ethicore, which had refrained from commenting on the matter since the M&G first revealed details of the plan, said on Monday that it would never have been party to the tactics PAE proposed.
"Ethicore maintained from the outset that the proposed lobbying effort was inappropriate and misguided in terms of South Africa’s policy processes, its political and socioeconomic context," the company said.
Jappie said Ethicore would have considered working with PAE and the industry group PAE approached with its plan, the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa (Ipasa) – but not in the way the Americans had proposed.
"This issue [drug patents] is a very sensitive issue, it needs to be handled with care," Jappie told the M&G. PAE simply did not grasp the nuance of local politics, she said.
The PAE plan called for the creation of a front organisation called Forward South Africa or similar. That organisation would push the message that strong protection for drug patents would be lucrative for South Africa, and that measures such as compulsory licensing and parallel importation of life-saving drugs would reduce investment in the country.
PAE said that Forward South Africa would appear to be locally run, complete with a high-profile South African as a figurehead, but would be directed in reality from Washington.
The plan called for the manipulation of countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania as part of an effort to convince South Africa that it would lose its leadership position on the continent should it fail to adequately protect drug patents.
Ipasa, created so that multinational drug companies focused on research could present a united front in South Africa, eventually rejected the proposal – but not before American companies within the group pushed it to the point of securing American funding for its implementation.
The fallout from the revelation of the plan has included the resignation of at least one company from Ipasa. Now Ethicore says it too has suffered the consequences, despite never being involved in the project.
"Ethicore wishes to emphasise that we were never appointed nor party to any consultations with the proposed client on the lobbying proposal," the company said. "We have never enjoyed any relationship with the originator of the proposal prior to being approached by them."
Ethicore said being associated with the PAE plan had "detracted" from its ability to work with policymakers on important issues, but said it was undeterred.
"Our mission has been to demonstrate that as a developing democracy, our services cannot be associated with reprehensible practices," the company said.
"Lobbying, when conducted in a constructive and ethical manner, fulfils a valuable contribution to the democratic cause through the creation of responsible citizen activism which enhances sound policy, legislative and regulatory formulation."