Could open-source make South Africa’s SOEs safer and improve service delivery?
In late July, South Africa’s ports and railways were brought to a standstill as a cyberattack hit Transnet, the country’s rail, port and pipeline company. While it’s still unclear exactly how the attack happened, there is no doubt that the attackers exploited some kind of vulnerability. In general, those vulnerabilities can be divided into human error (such as people opening phishing emails) and an issue with the specific software run by the organisation.
Often the two are interrelated and it’s much easier for cybercriminals to take advantage of human error if the software isn’t constantly updated with patches to fix the vulnerabilities. That should make it a no-brainer for large organisations such as state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to embrace open-source software. After all, open-source software is often demonstrably safer than its proprietary counterparts.
And with cyberattacks on nation-states and key infrastructure becoming more frequent, it’s pivotal that all possible security measures be taken. But open-source isn’t just secure, it could also open avenues for innovation, especially when it comes to service delivery.
Many hands, more secure
Before looking at those opportunities, however, it’s worth taking a deeper dive into why open-source is safer.
The first, and possibly the most important, factor in open-source’s favour is the fact that lots of people are working on it all the time. Most open-source platforms are backed by vibrant communities. That means vulnerabilities can be picked up and repaired far more quickly than typically happens with proprietary software. With an open-source, you can also take part in code review and then either stick with the previous version, release your own patch, or even disable certain functionality under suspicion until further notice.
A lot of the worries about open-source and security likely come from the dated perceptions that it’s mostly about amateur developers running code on obscure Linux distros. But the truth is that there are numerous large and profitable companies that offer open-source products. As well as the dedicated community of developers hunting down bugs and building patches, these companies will also have their own security response teams dedicated to patching vulnerabilities.
So, while open-source won’t stop an organisation’s employee from opening an authentic-looking, but harmful email, it does mean that they’re much less likely to be working with outdated software that’s riddled with vulnerabilities.
Innovation and breaking out of silos
There can be no doubt that South Africa faces major problems when it comes to service delivery. In part, that’s down to the state of its state-owned enterprises. While it’s most visible when it comes to electricity and water generation and delivery, the truth is that there are issues all around.
And while everyone just doing their jobs might've gotten them out of that malaise a few years ago, that’s no longer enough. The country needs real innovation and the ability for players in both the public and private sectors to collaborate freely. While that’s possibly feasible with proprietary software, there’s no doubt it’s much simpler with open-source software.
For an example of how successful this kind of collaboration and innovation can be, one need look no further than the efforts to develop and distribute the various COVID-19 vaccines. Incidentally, India recently made its vaccine platform open-source and is reviewing more than 100 applications from private firms for their integration with the platform.
Imagine how much simpler UIF could be if companies could integrate their payroll software with the platform used by the Department of Labour, or how many electricity payment issues could be resolved if municipalities were able to integrate their payment systems directly with Eskom. We’ve already seen how the Department of Home Affairs’ collaboration with the banks has improved the delivery of passports and identity documents, imagine what would happen if government departments and SOEs embraced open-source platforms that encourage collaboration.
Far too many functions of South African society operate in silos. At a time when we have no choice but to do more with less, it only makes sense to find ways to break down those silos. In a digital-first world, it makes sense to start with software when it comes to doing so.
Here to stay
The past 18 months have shown us the need for all sectors of society to be agile, especially digitally. It's also increasingly clear that it’s impossible to be agile without open source
Open source is here to stay and it's the future of development and innovation in the digital world. We'll never be able to scale and innovate the way we need to without being able to collaborate en masse. Sitting in your own siloed approach is simply putting yourself on the path to a hiding to nothing when pitted against the power of collaborating with many.
The sooner South Africa’s SOEs and government departments realise that, the sooner the country can start achieving the growth it’s capable of and the service delivery its citizens deserve.