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Biden’s ridiculous claim he was arrested trying to see Mandela

Former vice president Joseph R. Biden falsely claimed he was arrested in 1977 in South Africa trying to meet the legendary leader. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid. 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.”

— Former vice president Joe Biden, in remarks in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 11

“After he [Mandela] got free and became president, he came to Washington and came to my office. 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.’”

— Biden, in remarks in Las Vegas on Feb. 16

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was rocked for days after The Fact Checker exposed the fact that her story of arriving “under sniper fire” in Bosnia was simply not true. Instead of running toward an armed vehicle with her head down, video footage showed she was greeted by children bearing flowers.

We were reminded of that episode when we saw that former vice president Joe Biden has told voters at least three times that he was arrested in South Africa while trying to visit Nelson Mandela. The New York Times has done a great job deconstructing this story, but it cries out for our own fact check and a Pinocchio rating.

The Facts

The South Carolina primary, with its large percentage of African American voters, is critical for Biden’s hopes to emerge as the top challenger to the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders participated in the civil rights movement, unlike Biden, and photos have emerged of Sanders being arrested during a civil rights protest at the University of Chicago.

Biden, as a senator, was active in the anti-apartheid movement, helping pass sanctions on companies doing business in South Africa over 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.

As the Times noted, Biden’s memoir makes no mention of any such arrest. As far as we can tell, Biden never mentioned this arrest before; neither can we locate any news accounts of him being arrested.

Biden’s first statement above is rather jumbled. Soweto, a township near Johannesburg, is nearly 900 miles from Robben — not Robbens — Island, which is off the coast of Cape Town. He appears to be referring to a trip in 1977, but the U.N. ambassador from 1977 to 1979, Andrew Young, told The Fact Checker that he was never arrested in South Africa.

“There is no chance I ever was arrested in South Africa, and I don’t think Joe was, either,” said Young, who as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights demonstrations. “I was arrested twice, in Savannah and Atlanta.”

Young noted that memories can play tricks, but it isn’t easy to forget being arrested. He has had many people recall that they were arrested with him in Birmingham, Ala., but he must remind them that he was under specific instructions not to get arrested during the 1963 Birmingham protests. His friends may have been arrested in Birmingham, he said, but he was not.

Young is a former Atlanta mayor who supports fellow former mayor Mike Bloomberg but considers Biden a friend. He speculated that Biden was mixing up stories about congressional delegations that would fly into Lesotho, a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. He said he believed he traveled on at least three trips with Biden when he was a member of Congress.

Young said that on one trip, “we were not jailed, but we were retained by South Africa police,” who would not let the lawmakers get back to a military base in Lesotho so they could board their plane. A colonel finally came and sorted everything out. Young, with a laugh, recalled that then-Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who headed the delegation, “got pretty worked up about it.”

Young recalled also traveling with Biden on a trip led by Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.). Biden appeared to refer to that trip when, as vice president, he issued a statement in 2013 on Mandela’s death — a statement that did not include mention of any arrest: “When I tried to enter Soweto township with Congressmen Andrew Young of Atlanta and Charles Diggs of Detroit, I remember their tears of anger and sadness.”

As for trying to see Mandela, Young said he repeatedly sought permission to visit Mandela between 1974 and 1990, but it was always denied. (Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in the isolated prison.) He said it was possible to visit Soweto to meet Winnie Mandela, Mandela’s then-wife, as well as other members of the African National Congress.

Biden’s second statement — that Mandela thanked him for being arrested — also is not credible. In 2013, Biden merely said that Mandela thanked him for his efforts to end apartheid.

After signing a condolence book after Mandela’s death, Biden recalled to reporters being on a congressional delegation led by Diggs in 1977. “We went to meet with some anti-apartheid supporters in South Africa, mostly the English business community at the time,” Biden said. “We spent several days in South Africa. Obviously, no one [was] able to see him on Robbens Island, but making our case. And after he got elected president, he came to see me because I was on the Foreign Relations Committee, and thanked me, along with everyone else who had gone on that trip, for supporting sanctions against apartheid.”

At one Feb. 18 campaign stop in Nevada, Biden associated the supposed arrest with waiting to hear back from his then-girlfriend, Jill, in 1977 about whether she would finally agree to marry him. He said he “came back from South Africa, trying to see Nelson Mandela and getting arrested for trying to see him on Robbens Island. He was in prison.”

Biden in his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” recalls that “the 10 days in Africa felt like forever” as he wondered whether Jill would finally accept his marriage proposal. But, again, there is no mention in the book of any arrest during the trip. Jill Biden also references a 1977 Biden trip to Africa in her own memoir, but both appear to have gotten the year wrong. News reports found by Snopes show Biden traveled to Lesotho with Diggs and Young in late 1976, while Biden remained in Washington when Young made a 1977 trip as U.N. ambassador. The Biden campaign acknowledged Biden was referring to a 1976 trip to attend a conference in Lesotho.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The campaign ducked inquiries from the Times as well. Reporters covering Biden’s events need to question him about this claim. As in the case of Clinton’s Bosnia mishap, there’s no excuse for telling an invented story like this.

Update, Feb. 26: Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield offered a puzzling explanation to reporters after the tenth Democratic debate. “He was separated from the [Congressional Black Caucus] members he was traveling with at the airport, when he landed,” she said, in trying to explain the supposed arrest. “It was a separation. He was not allowed to go through the same door as the rest of the party he was with. Obviously, this 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 to the black door. He was separated." As we noted above, congressional delegations at the time did not land in South Africa but in Lesotho, a kingdom that achieved independence in 1966.

Update, Feb. 28: Biden himself was finally asked about this alleged incident, during an interview with CNN, and acknowledged he was not arrested: “I wasn’t arrested, I was stopped. I was not able to move where I wanted to go." He repeated a convoluted explanation about being stopped by South Africans, even though he was traveling to Lesotho:

“They had me get off a plane -- the Afrikaners got on in the short pants and their guns. Lead me off first and moved me in a direction totally different. I turned around and everybody, the entire black delegation, was going another way. I said, ‘I’m not going to go in that door that says white only. I’m going with them.’ They said, ‘You’re not, you can’t move, you can’t go with them.’ And they kept me there until finally I decided that it was clear I wasn’t going to move.”

After Biden’s remarks to CNN, The Fact Checker reached a white member of the mostly-black congressional delegation -- then Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.). Bonker, who said he strongly supports Biden for president, said he had “no recollection at all" of such an incident at the airport. “We had no problem with airports at any of the countries we visited,” he said, noting Biden "wasn’t the only white guy on the trip.” (Four of the 11 members of the delegation flying on an Air Force jet were white, according to news reports.) Bonker also said such a confrontation was unlikely in Lesotho because it was an African-run country that did not have apartheid.

We will note that Clinton admitted she made a mistake after her Bosnia snafu.

The Pinocchio Test

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. There is no evidence for either claim; neither appears remotely credible. Biden earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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