Cyber attack cripples port cargo-moving tech

29 July 2021

South Africa’s state-owned logistics firm Transnet has said systems are returning to normal after a cyber attack crippled its cargo-moving technology.

The attack, which left loading and unloading equipment paralysed and huge queues of trucks at the docks, led Transnet Port Terminals (TPT) to declare force majeure.

South African supply chains had been recovering from riots in protest at the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma when the cyber attack occurred.

The protests led to the closure of the Port of Durban and parts of the N2, N3 and N4 highways and the destruction of trucks, cargo, shopping malls and distribution centres.

On Thursday (29 July) Transnet’s website was still affected by the cyber attack but the firm said force majeure, a legal move that removes a party’s liability if unable to fulfil a contract, was “expected to be lifted soon”.

The Department of Public Enterprises said force majeure was in place but “was under review with the intention to lift it in the coming days”. 

“The return to operations is good news for the economy, as the Transnet ports and rail system are the backbone of the economy,” said the ministry, adding that operations were nearly back to normal.  

“The preliminary assessment of the cyber attack indicates that Transnet and its customer data [have] not been compromised. 

“Cyber attacks have been on the increase in the country and globally. Investigations are under way into the events and due process will take place.”

The attack has frustrated exporters attempting to capitalise on high global commodity prices.

Transnet had to place all non-operations staff on forced leave due to the attack, which affected payroll software, employee information files, email and websites. 

The firm has not specified whether the incident was due to a sophisticated attack, such as a ransomware incident, or the result of a systems failure. 

Gavin Kelly, chief executive of the Road Freight Association, told the Daily Maverick the shutdown of cargo tracking software meant ports could not tell where containers were and customs could not calculate taxes, leading to ships being turned back.

“On a daily basis, about 6,000 containers move in and out of South Africa, of which about 4,200 move out of the Port of Durban. There are a couple of containers moving now, but nowhere near these sort of figures,” he said.

“We’ve had interactions with senior management [at Transnet] and the replies have not been satisfactory. They’ve been very vague. There are only two questions we need answered: when can we move our containers, and exactly what happened?”

Transnet said: “Transnet remains on high alert and additional security and protection of critical infrastructure across the network remains in place. A 24-hour Nerve Centre hotline remains operational to monitor and respond to security-related incidents.”

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