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Note to Transnet: Cyberattacks only work when there are vulnerabilities to exploit

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

Having just survived week-long riots and looting, Transnet’s ports have been shut down by ‘an act of cyberattack, security intrusion and sabotage’. But the rail, port and pipeline company won’t tell us exactly what happened.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

This year’s traffic jam in the Suez Canal seemed like the biggest maritime news of the year ­– until Transnet’s ports were hacked this month, causing it to declare force majeure.

The words “force majeure” are like a magic potion in the world of insurable commerce – when to invoke this clause is akin to Asterix and Obelix drinking a superhuman-strength-inducing magic potion and facing off a patrol of hostile Roman soldiers.

It is a get-out-of-jail-free card in the ultimate sense of the phrase.

Essentially, force majeure is a legal way of encoding the previously archaic and indefinable concept of an “act of God”. This means that, even if you are an atheist who believes in physics and gravity, you are still legally bound by this old-fashioned homage to an indescribable storm, earthquake, typhoon, lightning strike or other “act of God”.

Even stranger, this weird compulsion of the Great Invisible Friend in the Sky to intervene in acts of rioting and looting – as widely seen in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng this month after #Presidunce Jacob Zuma finally went to jail – is a handy dodge-the-liability card for insurers. Civil unrest, such a feared term in predemocratic 1980s South Africa, is suddenly back en vogue circa 2021 when you’re a reinsurer…

Transnet, never an organisation to cast blame elsewhere, said on 26 July that force majeure would affect container terminals in Durban, Ngqura, Gqeberha and Cape Town because of “an act of cyberattack, security intrusion and sabotage”, Reuters reported. In that weird government doublespeak, Transnet added the problem “continues to persist”.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, there was revenue to be lost.

“Cargo ships give SA a wide berth in wake of cyber attack,” wrote my former colleague Paul Ash for TimesLIVE. “Ships are diverting from Durban and other SA ports as Transnet grapples with a week-old systems outage that has caused chaos with its container handling operations.”

Nobody has ever accused the ANC of haste – unless it was wannabe finance minister Brian Molefe’s ability to get Eskom to buy most of a coal mine for the Guptas by convening a late-night board meeting.

Two weeks ago, we were hearing worried fruit farmers telling radio hosts and journalists that this was a critical period for the country’s citrus harvest, which was being disrupted by the Zuma-inspired looting and the N3 highway shutdown.

Transnet was hit by the cyberattack on 22 July. This column will appear weeks later. SA’s busiest and most important port – Durban –  handles 60% of the country’s imports. Shut down by a cyberattack. But we don’t know exactly what happened because, well, transparency is another thing the ANC and state-owned enterprises do particularly badly.

It’s mind-bogglingly bad. And unforgivable, if the proper software updates and security protocols were not followed. Cyberattacks generally only work because there are vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Unless it’s an attack by a nation state with a vengeful agenda – see Russia’s “alleged” hacking of the Ukrainian power grid.

So here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, having seen off an “insurrection”, as President Cyril Ramaphosa called the fightback by a corrupt ANC faction coalesced around the convicted Zuma.

We have literally fought off an ANC faction hellbent on burning down the country rather than letting a corrupt former ruler go to jail as he deserves. But our economy, broken by Zuma’s “lost” decade and the ravages of the Covid-19 lockdown, is on its knees already. It doesn’t need Transnet’s IT systems to be compromised.

“You had one job” is the username of one of my favourite spoof Twitter accounts, which tweets hilarious examples of why its moniker is so appropriate. Sound familiar, Transnet? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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