Former Vice President Joe Biden on Friday acknowledged that he wasn’t arrested in South Africa during a visit to the country in the 1970s despite recently claiming that he had been.
“When I said arrested, I meant I was not able, I was not able to move … I wasn’t arrested, I was stopped. I was not able to move where I wanted to go,” Biden told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.”
Biden had recently claimed multiple times on the campaign trail that he was arrested on the trip to South Africa during apartheid. He’s used the story as part of his larger efforts to connect with African American voters ahead of the South Carolina primary, where a big showing is critical if he is to remain viable in the race.
“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 UN ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on (Robben) Island,” Biden said at his South Carolina launch party in Columbia earlier this month.
On February 16, Biden said that he “got arrested trying to see” Nelson Mandela in prison, and on February 18, he said the same thing again as part of a story about trying to get his wife, Jill, to marry him.
The New York Times could not find any mention of an arrest in a review of news accounts, and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, who had joined Biden on that trip, rebutted Biden’s account to the newspaper.
On CNN Friday, Biden said he was visiting South Africa with a delegation from members of the Congressional Black Caucus when he was separated from the group at the airport.
“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,” Biden said.
Biden also claimed that years later, Mandela, who was freed after 27 years in prison and then president of South Africa, visited the US and thanked Biden for “all the work I did on apartheid.”
An earlier recounting of his story, during the February 16 event in Nevada, Biden had said that Mandela as president of South Africa “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 said at the Nevada Black Legislative Caucus Black History Awards Brunch.
This story has been updated with additional background and comments from Biden.