Digital skills development is critical to fight cybercrime

South Africa’s accelerated adoption of digital technologies has the potential to triple the country’s productivity growth which would result in the creation of up to 1.2 million jobs by 2030. With the country’s unemployment levels hitting an all-time high of 26,5% in 2023, this level of job creation will be a game-changer for economic stability. Gilchrist Mushwana, Director at BDO South Africa and Head of Cybersecurity Service Line, discusses the critical role of skills development, particularly in cybersecurity, in readying a future-fit and digitally sound work force.

As one of the most technologically advanced countries on the African continent, predictions are that South Africa’s Internet of Things (IoT) will grow to a staggering $31.6 billion by 2028, up from $4.98 billion in 2022. Let that sink in. In terms of the cloud market, the country is set to see a 50% increase over the course of 2023. These are just some of the numbers that indicate South Africa is on an accelerated trajectory in terms of digital adoption.

However, with any type of digital adoption comes the ever-present threat of cybercrime. According to INTERPOL, South Africa leads the continent in the number of cybersecurity threats with 230 million threat detections in total in 2022, and the third highest number of cybercrime victims worldwide, at a cost of R2.2 billion a year. The country saw a 100% increase in mobile banking application fraud and is estimated to suffer 577 malware attacks an hour. Incredibly alarming statistics that could quite easily stop any kind of digital development in its tracks.

As the threat landscape worsens and cybercriminals become more and more sophisticated, skills development in cybersecurity becomes critical. Unfortunately, in South Africa, 40% of companies are struggling to hire and retain cybersecurity talent. In fact, some experts are of the opinion that the country’s digital skills gap has changed from a valley to a canyon and if we don’t make massive inroads in skills development within the next 12 months we could be left severely lagging.

With skills needed most in the areas of cloud security, cyberthreat intelligence, and malware analysis, recruitment and retention, specific roles that are proving hard to fill include cloud security, security operations, and network security.

Key strategies to develop digital skills and combat cybercrime in South Africa include:

Education and Training: Investment in comprehensive education and training programs that focus on cybersecurity and digital literacy. This includes raising awareness about common cyberthreats, teaching safe online practices, and providing technical training on cybersecurity tools and techniques. Collaboration is also key. Educational institutions, government, and private organisations must work together to ensure accessible cybersecurity education.

Promote Inclusivity: The field of cybersecurity has traditionally been male-dominated, with women significantly underrepresented. Gender inclusivity is not just about achieving equality; it is a strategic imperative for effective threat protection. By including more women in cybersecurity roles and skills development programmes, a wider range of ideas and approaches can be brought to the table. Different viewpoints can help identify vulnerabilities and devise innovative solutions that may be otherwise be overlooked.

Public-Private Partnerships: Collaboration between the public and private sectors to share expertise, resources, and best practices is essential. The private sector, especially those in the technology and cybersecurity sectors, should be encouraged to engage in initiatives that promote digital skills development.

Cybersecurity Research and Development: There must be more investment in research and development to stay ahead of emerging cyberthreats. The work done by universities, research institutions, and cybersecurity start-ups to date in conducting research, developing innovative technologies, and creating solutions to address the evolving challenges of cybercrime has had a massive impact on the sector. We now need to ensure that skills development can keep up with that work to build a digitally savvy workforce of the future.

Continuous Learning and Collaboration: We must find ways to establish platforms for ongoing learning and collaboration within the cybersecurity community. Professionals should be encouraged to participate in conferences, workshops, and webinars to stay updated on the latest industry trends and best practice. By doing this we can start to build a community of professionals that become active in information sharing, threat intelligence sharing, and collaboration.

Awareness Campaigns: Education is power. We need more awareness campaigns to educate organisations about the risks of cybercrime and the importance of cybersecurity. This will empower individuals to protect themselves and their digital assets by promoting strong passwords, regular software updates, and safe online practices, for example, so that we can begin to create a cybersecurity-conscious culture.

Cyber skills development requires a multi-faceted approach involving education, collaboration, research, and awareness. By investing in these strategies, South Africa can build a skilled workforce that is well equipped to defend against any scenario within the threat landscape to effectively protect critical infrastructure, and ensure the safety and security of organisations, employees and stakeholders in the digital economy.

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