Johannesburg - Opposition political party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has raised concerns over the lack of transparency over South Africa’s signing of a cyber security pact with China.
On Monday, minister of telecommunications and postal services Siyabonga Cwele signed a ‘plan of action’ on information and communications technology (ICT) co-operation with China’s minister of industry and information technology Miao Wei.
The plan of action seeks co-operation between the two countries in nine areas: Broadband strategies for implementation and rural access, investment in telecommunications services, e-skills professional training, electronics manufacturing and technology transfer, e-government, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) incubation in ICT, research and development in ICT, internet governance and cyber security.
But it is the pact on cyber security that worries the DA, which has criticised China’s internet freedom record.
Internet censorship is strongly in place in China as authorities in that country clamp down on dissent. China’s renowned ‘Great Firewall’ also blocks online services such as social network Facebook and Google’s email service Gmail.
"My main concern is that I'm hoping it's not a meeting of kindred spirits,” Marian Shinn, the DA’s shadow minister of telecommunications and postal services, told Fin24.
"South Africa definitely is in a bit of a sort of shaky position right now. We know that there's increased unrest and the governing party is feeling a little insecure in its tenure among the electorate.
Shinn also said she fears that the two countries could be “sharing tips” on how to curb the use social media during legitimate protests.
In turn, Shinn has also suggested that the South African government be more transparent about what the cyber security pact with China entails exactly. Shinn has further written to Minister Cwele asking for more details about the deal signed with China.
"Whatever agreement is in play with whatever government on these issues, it should be open and transparent and we need to know what they are,” Shinn told Fin24.
"As far as I'm concerned, no issue of cyber security or internet governance should be solely in the domain of the government. In fact, the government is only one of the players in drawing up these strategies and policies on this. It has to be a multi-stakeholder approach,” said Shinn.
Shinn also raised concerns about how China itself is increasingly being accused of waging high level hacking attacks on the likes of the US government and its companies.
The department of telecommunications and postal services' spokesperson Siyabulela Qoza told Fin24 that the plan of action signed with China is intended as a framework in which government also looks at best practices regarding issues such as cyber security.
Qoza also said that South Africa consults with other countries on best practices regarding cyber issues.
Speaking about the nine focus areas in South Africa’s signed ICT plan of action with China, Qoza said that government is consulting a wide array of people.
"What is going to happen going forward is that we are going to have the government and also the business community working with us to deliver on each of those nine areas that we have identified,” Qoza told Fin24.
"We also engage civil society in some of these areas to give meaning to this agreement so that this is just a framework of what it is that we can do and how we can pursue that,” said Qoza.
Speaking on the topic of cyber security, Qoza did not comment on China’s censorship of the internet in that country.
Qoza also did not say exactly how China will help SA in its cyber security efforts.
"China is a bit more advanced than us, and it is good to also benchmark what we are doing against what others are doing across the world," Qoza said.
But Qoza did say that South Africa needs to focus more on cyber security at home.
"You do need to have a focus on cyber security because we now have more people transacting online. People need to be comfortable and confident that the information that they share online is protected,” said Qoza.
Qoza told Fin24 that his use of the word “transacting” not only refers to buying goods online but also engaging in other activities such as social media.
"We're looking at how we can strengthen the security of our online platforms.
"If people do not have confidence in the security of the network, people will not use online platforms. So, this cyber security aspect is focused around that. Trying to make sure that more of our citizens can transact with confidence on the online platforms," Qoza told Fin24.
Qoza also told Fin24 that cyber security is a multi-department programme within in government. He said that officials are working with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on creating a cyber security hub.
Last month, South Africa’s ministry of state security said that it plans to “enhance” South Africa’s institutional cyber security capacity, finalise the national cyber security policy, and present the cyber security bill before cabinet this year.
South Africa’s growing internet population
While politicians discuss cyber security in South Africa, the country’s internet population continues to grow strongly.
According to research released by the managing director of World Wide Worx, Arthur Goldstuck, the number of internet users in South Africa is forecast to hit a “conservative estimate” of 18.5 million during 2015 and surge to 24.5 million by 2020.
The surge in internet adoption is expected to be driven by growing smartphone usage.
Goldstuck has previously said that smartphone usage in SA is expected to top 23.6 million users this year, up from 19 million in 2014.