Doubts raised over Joe Biden's claim he was arrested visiting Nelson Mandela in jail

Clark Mindock
Getty Images

Joe Biden is facing fresh scrutiny over claims that he was once arrested in South Africa while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison four deades ago.

The story has been told on the campaign trail by the former vice president several times in the past two weeks as he attempts what would be a remarkable political comeback in the Democratic primary, claiming that he was detained in 1977 while visiting the country as a US Senator from Delaware.

“This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid,” Mr Biden said last week in South Carolina. “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 Robbens Island.”

But a review of news reports and available evidence from that time conducted by the New York Times has cast doubt on Mr Biden’s account, with no mentions of such an arrest being found in available news reports from that time.

And, while South African arrest records are not easily attainable, a former US ambassador to the United Nations has said he does not find Mr Biden’s tale to be credible.

“No, I was never arrested and I don’t think he was, either,” said Andrew Young, who was the UN ambassador from 1977 to 1979, told the newspaper.

Mr Young, who supports Mike Bloomberg, said that he finds it hard to believe that a sitting member of US Congress would have been arrested at that time.

“Now, people were being arrested in Washington,” he said. “I don’t think there was ever a situation where congressmen were arrested in South Africa.”

The claims come as Mr Biden hopes to turn his political fortunes around in the 2020 Democratic primary, after two poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire — two majority white states that happen to vote first in the primary process.

Mr Biden and his campaign have maintained that his path to victory includes a strong showing in South Carolina, where he has been viewed as having strong support from African American voters. He is also hoping for at least a second place finish in Nevada, which caucuses on Saturday.

To bolster that support, Mr Biden has often turned to stories that bring his personal story closer to those experiences lived by black Americans, including claims that he was raised in a black church.

Mandela, an anti-apartheid revolutionary who died in 2013 , was the first democratically elected president of South Africa and was the first black leader of that country.

He was first arrested in 1962, and was held in several prisons over the next several decades until his release in 1990.

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