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Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, takes a photo with a supporter's camera after speaking at a campaign event in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (AP) Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, takes a photo with a supporter's camera after speaking at a campaign event in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (AP)

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, takes a photo with a supporter's camera after speaking at a campaign event in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 4, 2020

Joe Biden’s Pants on Fire claim about his arrest in South Africa

If Your Time is short

  • Biden said he was arrested trying to see Nelson Mandela.

  • He was actually stopped at an airport when he was traveling with African American colleagues. PolitiFact interviewed former UN ambassador Andrew Young to confirm the details. 

  • Biden changed his story to say that he was stopped but not arrested.

An unsubstantiated story told by former Vice President Joe Biden about getting arrested while trying to see Nelson Mandela inspired a wave of fact-checking, a pointed interview on Fox News about his inability to get the facts right, and a skit on Saturday Night Live.

"Now here’s an honest-to-goodness true story based loosely on fake events," said John Mulaney, playing Biden in the show’s cold open. "The year was 19-Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And me and Nelson Mandela were pallin’ around South Africa, Green Book-style."

The actual version of the story Biden told didn’t go exactly that way. But reviews by journalists have found it similarly unsupported by facts.

Here’s what Biden said at a Feb. 11 rally in Columbia, S.C.:

"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." (It’s actually Robben Island.)

The New York Times recounted how Biden made similar statements two other times, but reporters could not find evidence to back up his claim that he was arrested. The Washington Post’s The Fact Checker then gave Biden Four Pinocchios. Snopes and also fact-checked his statements.

In the language of PolitiFact, it was a Pants on Fire story. We contacted Biden’s campaign to ask about his initial claims that he was arrested, and the later accounts in which he said he was stopped, and did not get a reply. 

Biden’s claims about being arrested

In February, Biden said that the incident in South Africa occurred in 1977, but Snopes found news reports that showed that it was December 1976 when 13 members of Congress traveled to Lesotho. (Lesotho is a small country within South Africa, so it would be possible to visit both countries.) The African-American Institute of New York sponsored the conference the politicians attended, UPI reported.

We searched articles by major newspapers for any accounts of Biden’s trip in 1977 and found no mention of any arrest. Over his career, Biden spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and criticized the South African government, but the accounts never stated he was arrested.

When Mandela died in 2013, Biden’s written statement recounted his visit to South Africa decades earlier. In that account, he made no mention of an arrest, but he did describe airport officials trying to separate him from his African American colleagues.

"When I exited the plane I was directed to one side of the tarmac, while the African American congressmen traveling with me were sent to the other side," said the written statement. "I refused to break off, and the officials finally relented."

When Biden signed the condolence book for Mandela during a visit to the South African embassy, he recounted that he traveled to South Africa in 1977 but was unable to meet with Mandela. Biden did not mention an arrest or being detained.

In Biden’s 2007 book "Promises to Keep," he mentions traveling to South Africa in 1977 but makes no claim that he was arrested.

In his February telling, Biden said that he was arrested with our "U.N. ambassador." Andrew Jackson Young Jr., a Georgia congressman, was on the trip in 1976, UPI reported. President Jimmy Carter appointed Young as ambassador to the United Nations in January 1977.

When we interviewed Young on March 4, he said neither one of them was arrested in South Africa.

"I wouldn’t say we were arrested," he said. 

Young told PolitiFact that he was arrested twice in his life — once in Atlanta and once in Savannah. He said that it often happens that when people recount stories about civil rights decades ago, they have memories that result in conflicting stories. 

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"I get this all time, (people say) ‘I went to jail with you in Birmingham.’ I say, no, you didn’t go to jail with me in Birmingham. I didn’t go to jail in Birmingham," he said.

Young, who said he visited South Africa multiple times in the 1970s, did recall traveling with Biden to South Africa. Young said that either South African police or the military would not allow the congressmen to get back to their plane at the airport and detained them briefly behind a chained fence before letting them through to their airplane. Young recalled U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York arguing with authorities.

The South African authorities "were used to black people bowing heads and being humble, and Charlie Rangel was anything but humble," Young said.

Young said he considers Biden a longtime friend and would love to see him as president, although he told PolitiFact he hasn’t endorsed him. 

Biden later changed his account and said he was stopped

By late February, Biden and his campaign had changed his story.

Following the South Carolina debate Feb. 25, deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said Biden was "separated from his party at the airport."

Days later, Biden himself walked back the arrest remark in an interview on CNN on Feb. 28 .

Biden said when he exited the plane with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, officials tried to separate him from the African American congressmen.

"They had me get off a plane — the Afrikaners got on in the short pants and their guns. Let 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.

The officials then took the members of Congress through a baggage claim area to a restaurant. 

"When I said ‘arrested,’ I meant I was not able, I was not able to move, cops, Afrikaners would let me go with them, 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."

On March 1, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Biden about his story about being arrested and asked: "Were you confused, or were you just trying to embellish a story?"

Biden replied: "No. No, what I was trying to — what I was doing was talking about the fact that I was strongly opposed to apartheid. When we landed and we were going to Soweto actually. We landed in Johannesburg and the Afrikaners took me off the plane and took me into one direction, wanted me to go through a white-only door, and in fact, I wouldn't move. I said everybody else is going through to another door, I'm going with the black delegation that I came with."

He continued:

"They said, no, you can't. And I said, I'm staying here, I'm not going to move. And they would not let me move anywhere, so I guess I should have said, I was detained, I was not able to move forward.  So what they finally did was they went out, and they cleared out a baggage claim area, took us all up through the baggage claim area, up through a restaurant."

One other part of Biden’s story doesn’t match up. He said that he was arrested on the streets of Soweto trying to see Mandela at Robben Island. Soweto is a neighborhood in Johannesburg. Robben Island is more than 700 miles away off the coast of Cape Town. 

Our ruling

Biden said, "I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see (Nelson Mandela) on Robbens Island."

There is no evidence to prove that Biden was arrested in South Africa in the 1970s while trying to visit Mandela. Biden has since walked back his remarks to say that when he exited the airplane, officials tried to separate him from African American congressmen or detained him.

This statement rates Pants on Fire. 

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Joe Biden’s Pants on Fire claim about his arrest in South Africa

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