Mandela’s arrest warrant: Can NFTs help save African heritage sites?

In 1961, on the run from the apartheid government, Nelson Mandela posed as a gardener on a farm called Lilliesleaf, north of Johannesburg. He was eventually arrested outside the town of Howick, 300 miles away. 

Mr. Mandela’s arrest warrant, and the farm where he once hid out, are making history again – with a 21st-century twist. Last month, a high-tech virtual copy of Mr. Mandela’s arrest warrant sold for $130,550 as a non-fungible token (NFT). The proceeds will benefit the struggling museum at Liliesleaf Farm. 

Why We Wrote This

Africa’s historical artifacts have routinely been plundered by outsiders. Can a booming NFT market offer a way for struggling museums to cash in while keeping valuables on home soil?

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Themba Wakashe, a Liliesleaf trustee. “It could be an excellent tool to preserve our heritage. But a lot of people have also been asking, are we selling the family silver?” 

Aside from raising funds, NFTs allow ownership tracking on a blockchain, a secure ledger.

But digital copyright ownership is unclear because there aren’t established standards and norms. When asked if Mr. Mandela’s arrest warrant could still be placed in a digital archive for public use, trustees of Liliesleaf were unsure. 

Ahren Posthumus, CEO of Momint, the digital auction house that brokered the sale, says the anonymous buyer has the full digital copyright to the arrest warrant. They can decide if the public can see the NFT and use it for research – or not. 

JOHANNESBURG

When a mustachioed young lawyer named Nelson Mandela moved to a farm a few miles north of Johannesburg in late 1961, he was a wanted man. 

A warrant was out for his arrest for trying to topple South Africa’s white government. At the farm, called Liliesleaf, he slipped into workers’ overalls and spent the next few months posing as a gardener named David, using the cover to help organize anti-apartheid activities with the farm’s other residents.  

Less than a year later, however, the law caught up with Mr. Mandela, and he was arrested outside the town of Howick, 300 miles away. 

Why We Wrote This

Africa’s historical artifacts have routinely been plundered by outsiders. Can a booming NFT market offer a way for struggling museums to cash in while keeping valuables on home soil?

He spent the next 27 years in prison. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

But now, Mr. Mandela’s arrest warrant, and the farm where he once hid out, are making history a second time – with a 21st-century twist. Last month, a high-tech virtual copy of Mr. Mandela’s arrest warrant sold for $130,550 as a non-fungible token (NFT).


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