New minister reveals R300m cyber heist at public works dept

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 10 Jul 2024
Dean Macpherson, minister of public works and infrastructure.
Dean Macpherson, minister of public works and infrastructure.

Cyber criminals have looted R300 million from the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) in a period spanning 10 years.

This was revealed today by Dean Macpherson, minister of public works and infrastructure, in a media statement.

The department is responsible for public infrastructure, as well as providing accommodation and property management services to all the other ministries of the South African government.

Macpherson was recently appointed into the role, when the Government of National Unity was announced on 30 June.

According to the department, Macpherson decided to take the public into his confidence in the interests of transparency, to reveal a staggering cyber crime-related matter that has been unearthed by the department, resulting in an amount of at least R300 million being stolen in the past 10 years.

It says this amount could be higher as investigations continue.

In the latest episode that took place in May, the cyber attackers stole a further R24 million, the department reveals.

This prompted a full forensic investigation by the Hawks, South African Police Services, State Security Agency and experts in the ICT and cyber security industry.

This revelation emerged as Macpherson and deputy minister Sihle Zikalala conducted detailed assessments on the work of the DPWI and through the incoming briefings from branches, the department adds.

Zikalala was the minister from March 2023 to 14 June 2024. The other ministers who headed the department include Patricia de Lille (30 May 2019 to 6 March 2023) and Thulas Nxesi (26 February 2018 to 29 May 2019).

“It has become clear that the department has been a soft target and playground for cyber criminals for over a 10-year period and this should have been picked up a lot earlier,” says Macpherson.

“I felt it important to let South Africa know what has happened and what we are doing about it. I cannot discount the possibility of collusion between officials and criminals in this prolonged period of theft. It is clear that we need better financial controls, which I have said to the department are a matter of urgency.”

The minister has pledged to crack down on these syndicates and those in cahoots with them, internally or externally.

“We want to put a stop to this immediately because we cannot allow our department to be subjected to unchecked looting. This is money that could have been spent on our infrastructure drive to improve the lives of South Africans. The investigation will be expanded and deepened to find the masterminds and the beneficiaries of this grand theft, and I want to see them in prison,” adds Macpherson.

According to the department, four officials have been suspended and 30 laptops seized by investigators. The suspended officials include three senior management officials and one middle management official.

The department was forced to shut down its payment system, causing significant delays in the payment of its creditors, it notes.

In May, the department announced it had ordered a full forensic probe into what it called “vulnerabilities” in the department's information and technology systems.

The department says it identified the cyber security vulnerabilities with the assistance of its banking partners, including Absa and the South African Reserve Bank.

The investigation, which involves cyber and ICT security experts, covers the following:

  • Causes of the breach and vulnerabilities.
  • Vulnerability and susceptibility to cyber crime of the ICT infrastructure within the department.
  • Lack of staff capacity and weak ICT systems.

“I welcome the precautionary suspension of four individuals, including senior managers, and the seizure of over 30 laptops for further examination by the investigative teams. This will allow the investigations to proceed smoothly.

“We are appealing to the team probing this security breach to conclude their investigation with speed. We do not want prolonged investigations with no results and consequences. There is simply no place for corruption in this department,” says Macpherson.

“I further welcome the initial swift investigation launched by my predecessor and now deputy minister Zikalala. The department has suffered a massive financial loss and those responsible for protecting us from cyber criminals must be held to account.

“We need answers as to what happened under their watch. We also ask the investigators to trace and follow the money and ensure it is brought back to the coffers of government.”

The minister has committed to working tirelessly to ensure the reinforcement of the cyber security systems within the department, so that similar incidents are prevented in future.