Former Vice President Joe Biden reversed course Friday on his claim that he was arrested in South Africa during apartheid — saying instead that he was simply “stopped” and not allowed to “move where I wanted to go” as he sought to meet with Nelson Mandela.
“When I said ‘arrested’ I meant I was not able to move, cops would not let me go with them and made me stay where I was. I guess I wasn’t arrested, I was stopped, I was not able to move where I wanted to go,” he said on CNN.
Biden had claimed on multiple occasions in recent weeks that he was arrested three decades ago as he sought to visit Mandela on a trip to South Africa.
“This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid,” Biden said at a campaign event in South Carolina, as reported by The New York Times. “I had the great honor of meeting him. I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on Robbens Island.”
At another event in Las Vegas, he said that Mandela thanked him for getting arrested.
“After he got free and became president, he came to Washington and came to my office,” Biden said, according to the Times. “He threw his arms around me and said, ‘I want to say thank you.’ I said, ‘What are you thanking me for, Mr. President?’ He said, ‘You tried to see me. You got arrested trying to see me.’”
After the Times noted that there was no mention of his arrest in Biden’s memoir, and no references to an arrest of the then-Delaware senator in contemporary news accounts, it drew greater scrutiny. The Washington Post’s fact-checker branded the claim, as well as the claim that Mandela later thanked him for the move, as “ridiculous.”
“Biden has never been shy about tooting his own horn. So it’s pretty surprising that on the eve of a primary critical to his election hopes, he suddenly recalls being arrested in South Africa — and being thanked by Mandela for being arrested,” the Posts’s Glenn Kessler wrote. “There is no evidence for either claim; neither appears remotely credible.”
The campaign later walked back the claim and said that Biden was actually “separated from his party at the airport.”
“It was a separation. They, he was not allowed to go through the same door that the — the rest of the party he was with. Obviously, it was apartheid South Africa. 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. This was during a trip while they were there in Johannesburg,” campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told reporters.
That very different explanation was echoed by Biden in the CNN interview on Friday. He said that he was separated from the rest of the congressional delegation and pushed in the direction of the “whites only” door, to which he objected — until he said they took the party through a baggage claim into a restaurant.
He also said that Mandela did later come and thank him, but not for getting arrested.
“Long after this, when Nelson Mandela was freed and came to the United States, he came to my office. He was one of the most incredible men I ever met. He sat down in my office and thanked me, thanked me for all the work I did on apartheid,” he said. “So that’s the context of it.”