In Depth

Joe Biden drops claims about meeting Nelson Mandela

Presidential candidate’s campaign forced to admit that he was not detained in apartheid South Africa

Joe Biden has been forced to admit that he was not arrested in South Africa while trying to see Nelson Mandela

The US presidential contender had repeatedly said he was arrested during a trip to see Mandela during the 1970s, when South Africa was still under apartheid.

But a deputy campaign manager has now told reporters Biden had been referring to an episode where he was “separated” from black colleagues at an airport. 

Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, told reporters that Biden had not wanted to go through a door reserved for white people while his black colleagues used a different door. 

“Obviously, it was apartheid South Africa,” Bedingfield said. “There was a white door, there was a black door. He did not want to go through the white door and have the rest of the party go through the black door. He was separated.”

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Biden, then a senator for Delaware, had claimed he had been visiting the country with a delegation of American officials, and had planned to visit Mandela in prison. During the trip, Biden said he had “had the great honour of being arrested with our UN ambassador on the streets of Soweto” during an effort to reach the civil rights leader on Robben Island. 

The BBC notes that Biden was not arrested and that the town of Soweto is more than 760 miles from Robben Island.

Biden also claimed that Mandela had thanked him for his efforts. “He threw his arms around me and said, ‘I want to say thank you,’” Biden said. “I said, ‘What are you thanking me for, Mr President?’ He said: ‘You tried to see me. You got arrested trying to see me.’”

Biden’s account has been rebuffed by Andrew Young, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, who says he travelled to South Africa with the future vice president.

The Washington Post fact-checking team branded the claim “ridiculous”, handing it “four Pinocchios” on its truth ranking scale. “Biden, as a senator, was active in the anti-apartheid movement”, the paper notes, highlighting his work to pass sanctions on companies doing business in South Africa despite then-president Ronald Reagan’s veto.

“But there is no evidence that Biden was ever arrested trying to see the imprisoned future president of a democratic South Africa.”

The New York Times notes that the alleged incident was not included in Biden’s memoir and he has “not spoken of it prominently on the campaign trail”.

Biden is counting on black support to win the South Carolina primary on Saturday, the BBC reports. This week, he won the endorsement of Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, a black lawmaker who is considered key to winning the state’s black vote.

Bernie Sanders currently holds the most delegates for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, followed by former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg in second and Biden in third place.

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