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Forced leave for Transnet staff as cyber attack takes toll

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Transnet confirmed it suffered a cyber attack, as Transnet Port Terminals have declared force majeure. (Image source: Transnet Facebook page)
Transnet confirmed it suffered a cyber attack, as Transnet Port Terminals have declared force majeure. (Image source: Transnet Facebook page)

State-owned rail, port and pipeline company Transnet is asking some of its employees to take forced leave as they can’t work because of the disruptions to the firm’s IT systems last week.

It also emerged that the company is working relentlessly to ensure employees are paid their salaries today.

ITWeb is in possession of an internal memorandum sent by Khaya Ngema, Transnet’s chief of people, advising the employees on the toll of the IT disruption on the company.

Efforts to reach Transnet via e-mail and the switchboard were unsuccessful at the time of publishing. Ngema’s memo shows that e-mails are still down.

The company has been updating the public about its predicament using social media platforms.

Problems at the state-owned company emerged last week, when a report by SA Trucker revealed the Transnet Port Terminals website was down after it had allegedly been hacked.

According to the publication, reports from insiders who cannot be named because they are not allowed to speak to the media suggest the cyber attack hit Transnet-wide.

This implies that all the companies under the state-run Transnet have been affected, it added.

Force majeure declaration

According to media reports, Transnet has finally confirmed that it suffered a cyber attack, as Transnet Port Terminals declared force majeure on Monday after the incident.

In law, force majeure relates to “unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract”.

The reports say a confidential force majeure letter to customers on Monday confirmed it is “an act of cyber attack, security intrusion and sabotage”.

In the memo, Ngema says: “I refer to ongoing communication over the past few days regarding the network interruption that Transnet is currently experiencing.

“This is an unprecedented event in our history as Transnet and the various IT system disruptions are a serious impediment on our operational performance. The compromising position that we find ourselves in at the moment has brought our company to almost a standstill in many parts of the business.

“At this juncture, no employee is allowed to access the Transnet network, e-mail or Teams applications or any other systems like SAP HCM, where all employee data is stored and maintained, and the platform that we use to pay our employees.”

As it stands, Ngema says the company has been working relentlessly to ensure employees will be paid on 27 July, and get the systems functioning again.

“Colleagues, to the effect that most of us are unable to work due to network issues, all office-based managers will be required to take leave from Monday, 26 July 2021 until Thursday, 29 July 2021, or until the system is finally restored.”

According to the memo, office-based management employees with insufficient annual leave days will have days deducted from their next leave cycle for this period of inactivity.

“This will be a mandatory period of leave with the exception of managers who are required to work based on instruction from the relevant line ExCo member during this period due to operational/mission-critical business continuity requirements.”

Source of disruption

While cyber security experts are of the view that Transnet was hit by a ransomware attack, the company has been cagey, saying it is experiencing “disruptions” to its IT systems.

Anna Collard, senior vice-president of content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 Africa, told ITWeb that although not officially confirmed, it is very likely Transnet was hit by a ransomware attack.

On Thursday last week, the state-owned company acknowledged it was experiencing issues with its IT systems.

In another update on Friday, the company said it had identified and isolated the source of the disruption to its IT systems.

It noted that technical teams continued to work around the clock to ensure the impact remains minimal.

“As part of efforts to support South Africa’s exports, manual port and rail operations continue. Transnet is prioritising the export of reefer containers, primarily through the port of Durban. This, as the citrus season nears its peak,” said Ayanda Shezi, Transnet spokesperson.

Addressing members of the media last week, acting minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said government is investigating whether the IT system disruption at Transnet was linked to recent unrest that gripped parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

However, she pointed out that at the moment, government is looking at the events as unrelated.

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