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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

South Africa needs to become more stringent with its cyber security enforcement

South Africa’s vulnerability to cyber crimes and overall attitude to cyber security must be urgently addressed if the country has any ambitions to become a global player in the digital economy.

The current state of the country’s Economic Crisis, which is worsening as we enter into a critical election period, is being exacerbated by the current volatility that the mining sector is experiencing regarding commodity demand and commodity prices. Many of the country’s top economists have urged the government to diversify the South African economy. However, the recent Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) and Government Employees Pension Fund hacks have exposed the vulnerability of South Africa’s digital economy ambitions.

“South Africa holds immense potential to be a major global player in the digital economy. Recent studies project that by 2030, Africa will surpass both China and India in population, and by 2035, one in four global workers will be African. It’s crucial to envision the future of work and enable this workforce to thrive, thereby securing our digital economy ambitions,” points out Trisha Govender, a Manager at the MANCOSA School of Information and Digital Technology (SIDT).

A significant impact

According to the 2021 Interpol African Cyberthreat Assessment Report, South Africa is not just the most attacked country in Africa, but also the third most attacked country in the world. In 2021 alone, South Africa recorded a staggering 230 million threat detections, while Kenya had 72 million and Morocco 71 million. These figures underscore the severity of the cyber threat we face.

“This gives a bit more perspective to the scale of losses South Africa could face if a major cyber attack or data leak took place,” points out Govender.

She adds that the impact on the economy could be catastrophic. “Cyberattacks can result in direct financial damage to businesses through theft of financial information, ransom payments (in the case of ransomware attacks), and the loss of valuable intellectual property. These financial implications extend to the costs associated with system repairs, security updates, and potential legal fees if customer data breaches lead to lawsuits. Further, regular cyberattacks can shake investor confidence and deter foreign investment as investors may perceive the high risk of cyber incidents as a sign of instability or insufficient protection. This could lead to reduced investment flows into the country,” says Govender.

As SMMEs play an increased role as economic drivers, they must note their vulnerability. SMEs are particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks as they often lack the resources and infrastructure to defend against sophisticated cyber threats. A successful attack can devastate small businesses, potentially leading to bankruptcy or significant operational disruptions.

Global cooperation

Governder points out that it is essential to note that the cybercriminals who are orchestrating these attacks are part of large syndicates that are well-run, well-funded, and up-to-date with the latest tactics when it comes to cybercrime.

“If we are ever going to get ahead of this, we need to change the narrative and approach this problem from an innovative angle,” says Govender.

South Africa is actively working towards strengthening its cybersecurity framework. This gap is being addressed through a deliberate, multi-year legislative process expected to culminate in introducing a comprehensive Cybersecurity Bill. As part of this process, the State Security Agency initiated consultations with critical public and private stakeholders in December 2023 to discuss the development and scope of the proposed bill.

“While this is a significant step in the right direction, we need to realise that South Africa needs to become stricter in enforcing its legislation. The effective enforcement of existing cybersecurity laws, such as the Cybercrimes Act and the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), must be paired with developing new policies that address emerging technological trends. Innovating in cybersecurity solutions and adopting cutting-edge technologies like AI and blockchain will further enhance the security and efficiency of digital services. Additionally, international collaboration is critical. By aligning with global cybersecurity standards and participating in international initiatives, South Africa can bolster its defences against global threats and secure a position as a reliable and safe digital economy player,” says Govender.

Proactive vs reactive

While much is being done to establish a legislative framework that will govern the country’s cyber security, this will be a reactive response to any cyber attack/breach. More needs to be done to improve the digital skills of South Africa’s youth.

However, MANCOSA has previously pointed out that one of the biggest challenges facing higher education institutions is that students begin their academic journey with varying digital skills.

“This is a challenge that needs to be addressed. MANCOSA is actively piloting innovative projects to enhance our students’ digital skills, ensuring they are well-prepared for the evolving demands of the modern workforce. These initiatives, still in their early stages, are focused on embedding advanced digital competencies through targeted curriculum updates and strategic partnerships with technology leaders. These efforts are part of our broader strategy to equip our students with the necessary tools and knowledge to thrive in the digital age,” says Govender.

A bright future

Despite the imminent cyber threat, Govender points out that significant measures are being implemented to address future cyber threats. If the enforcement of South Africa’s cyber security laws becomes stringent and South Africa invests in improving human capital in this area, the country can become a significant global player in the digital economy.

“Through strategic investments in technology, human resources, and policies, South Africa can overcome its cybersecurity challenges and establish a secure, dynamic, and successful digital economy,” says Govender.

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