Johannesburg – Security and ICT experts have warned that cyberattacks could be a huge threat to the smooth functioning of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and have urged decision-makers to invest more in the sector.
The warning comes as South African rail, port and pipeline company Transnet declared force majeure late last month after its IT systems suffered a massive cyberattack that crippled its operations.
According to the freight company’s division – which operates container terminals at South Africa’s biggest ports of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Ngqura and Durban – they “experienced an act of cyberattack, security intrusion and sabotage, which resulted in the disruption of TPT normal processes and functions or the destruction or damage of equipment or information”.
The attack resulted in clearance delays at the port which affected many African countries that rely on South Africa for cargo movements.
Security expert Mr Munya Bonjo told The Southern Times that cyberattacks could be a major threat to the smooth running of AfCFTA.
“A strong ICT system needs to be put in place if AfCFTA is to succeed without disruptions. We are talking of Transnet only but the impact has been felt from as far as DRC and Zambia. Securing systems should be prioritised by the continent’s decision-makers.
“Hacking of ICT systems is now a huge threat that should never be taken for granted. Africa needs to come up with a collective security system to protect AfCFTA operations,” said Mr Bonjo.
According to ICT expert Mr Brilliant Sibanda, AfCFTA needs ICT interconnections to drive economic growth and development across the continent in the coming years hence the need to reach an Africa-wide consensus on cyber security.
“A proper linked and secured ICT system is best needed for the continental trade method to run without glitches. A strong ICT system would mean good turnaround time in cargo clearance which improves competitiveness. The Transnet issue should serve as a reminder to Africa that cyber insecurity could lead to massive delays and unreliability of the movement of goods across all modes of transport.”
A consultant at the South African Association of Freight Forwarders, Mr David Watts, said the Transnet cyberattack was the third obstacle to South Africa’s economic recovery this year after the COVID-19 pandemic and riots in July.
“Imagine exports of citrus fruits from South Africa the biggest seller of the fruit after Spain came to a grinding halt. You can imagine instead of making a telephone call you are running around to the corner with a piece of paper. If such events keep happening, it could be extremely disastrous to continental trade,” said Mr Watts.
Transnet operates Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest port in Durban, while its Richards Bay is the biggest single-site terminal for bulk shipments.
Most of the operations are run on the Navis N4 terminal operating systems, that helps the port operator monitor and manage everything from loading cargo to moving ships.
Transnet on Monday said it had since lifted the force majeure.
“The upliftment of the force majeure follows the phased restoration of the Navis N4 terminal operating system across the container terminals. In terms of operations, Port Terminals will continue to apply the berthing principles of the container operations contract in the container terminals. This is currently the most practical way of normalising operations and maintaining a complementary port schedule for shipping lines,” said Transnet in a statement.