South Africa: Incident Response Plans: What To Do When Data Breaches Or Cyber-Attacks Occur In South Africa

What is abundantly clear from recent media reports is that organisations of all sizes and across all industry sectors are becoming targets of cyber criminals. Attacks are also becoming more frequent, more sophisticated, and the consequences more dire for organisations. Given the increased frequency, and wave nature of attacks and data losses, the focus can no longer be purely preventative. Organisations must now also focus efforts on the mitigation of the consequences of inevitable breaches and cyber-attacks, specifically by putting in place an incident response plan.

In putting together an incident response plan in South Africa, it is important to bear in mind the implications of the Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill which was introduced to parliament in February 2017, and which aims to consolidate offences relating to cybercrimes, as well as to create new cybercrimes and offences to bring South Africa in line with relevant international conventions and model laws.

Specifically, the bill introduces a reporting and preservation of evidence obligation for electronic communications service providers (as defined in the Electronic Communications Act 36 of 2005), as well as financial institutions (as defined in the Financial Services Board Act 97 of 1990).

The bill provides that an electronic service provider or financial institution, which is or becomes aware that its computer systems are involved in the commission of any offence (as set out in Chapter 2 of the bill), "must without undue delay ... and not later than 72 hours after having become aware of the offence", report it in the prescribed form and manner to the South African Police Service, and preserve any information that may be of assistance to the investigation. Failure to comply with these provisions of the bill may result in a fine of R50 000. Organisations should take note of these requirements when responding to incidents, and ensure compliance once the Bill comes into effect in the near future.

In assessing risks, two questions should be asked – firstly, what security protocol or programme is in place and, secondly, what incident response plan is in place. The primary objectives of an incident response plan is to mitigate and manage potential cyber security breaches (both in relation to the organisation and to its clients and customers), to increase confidence of clients and customers and reduce any liability for the organisation. Incident response plans can take a variety of forms and there are no mandated requirements. Each organisation requires an incident response plan tailor-made to meet the needs and resources of that organisation. Below is a non-exhaustive list of considerations organisations should bear in mind in putting together an incident response plan:

Evaluate and prevent

  • Conduct an IT risk assessment by data and network mapping to determine what data, intangible assets and devices your business holds and the value of these. It is also important to gather threat intelligence on a regular basis. Any gaps in protection, IT or otherwise, should be remedied as necessary.
  • If not already in place, consider the need for the development of internal cyber security policies and procedures addressing, amongst other things, key security controls, the process for reporting breaches, remote rules, controls around using personal devices and social media use.
  • Understand your data protection and other legal obligations.


  • Engage with the board and seek authorisation for the development of cyber security protocols, necessary resourcing and a budget for implementation.
  • Set up an incident response team (with back-ups) formed of members across the business functions. Ideally the team would consist of members from IT, legal, PR, HR and the Board. Increasingly, companies are looking to specifically appoint a Chief Information Security Officer who will, as part of their responsibilities, act as the team leader in the event of a breach.
  • Draft a clear data breach incident response plan which will be initiated on the occurrence of a breach, whereby the pre-approved incident response team will be alerted and follow clear protocols to remedy the breach, minimise loss and preserve evidence.


  • It is vital to scenario test the incident response plan at the outset and at regular intervals, ideally by having security drills where the plan is put into action as if a breach was happening. Any flaws with the plan can then be identified and remedied.
  • Distribute company policies on cyber security and response to all personnel.
  • Regularly update all documents as necessary.


  • Mandatory training to personnel should be given at regular intervals, updated to reflect changes in any company policies or the incident response plan.
  • Clear employee reporting channels should be set up and communicated.


  • Many organisations are global organisations and/or have multiple office locations and fail to integrate incident response plans across all business units and locations. Also, incident response plans do not always take into account the most effective ways to manage incidents across the whole business. Incident response plans should accordingly not be developed in silos, and best practices and knowledge should be shared across all organisation locations.
  • Incident response plans easily become outdated and are often too generic. Organisations should ensure that incident response plans are constantly evaluated, tested and updated. Specific guidelines for identifying events, categorising events, and the suggested actions for identified events should be included in incident response plans.
  • The decision making for how to respond to an incident is often left to one or two key people in an organisation – this can result in a failure to implement and make decisions timeously if the responsible person is unavailable or lacks capacity to deal with the incident immediately. Decision making and escalation should accordingly be spread across the whole business to ensure prompt responses to incidents.

A data breach, whether from a cyber intrusion or the loss of a device, can be a challenge for any organisation to deal with. However, in tandem with adequate IT security, the best defence is to be prepared for a breach so that the response can be quick and effective.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Nicole Gabryk
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