Former US vice president Joe Biden.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • US presidential candidate Joe Biden has spent the last several weeks telling campaign audiences he was arrested in apartheid South Africa while trying to meet with Nelson Mandela.
  • On Friday, he told CNN the story wasn't true.
  • Amid the former vice president's admission, he is looking to the South Carolina primary for a second wind, where he hopes for a big turnout from black voters.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has typically claimed the mantle of being arrested for his civil rights activism.

But throughout the presidential campaign, former American vice president Joe Biden has repeatedly touted his own experience with civil disobedience. And in the past few weeks, he's claimed he was arrested during a visit with Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa with the Congressional Black Caucus and other US officials.

On Friday, he admitted that the South Africa story wasn't true. Biden has previously made (and retracted) exaggerated statements about his own involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

Since early February, the former vice president has told at least three audiences on the campaign trail that he was arrested in Soweto, which he appeared to think is on the way to Robben Island.

"This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about Apartheid," Biden told an audience in South Carolina about two weeks ago, the New York Times reported.

"I had the great honour of meeting him. I had the great honour of being arrested with our UN ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on Robben Island," Biden said.

On Friday, Biden came clean. He told CNN that he wasn't actually arrested, but that white Afrikaners during the visit tried to separate him from the Congressional Black Caucus.

"When I said 'arrested,' I meant I was not able, I was not able to move," Biden told CNN. "The cops, the Afrikaners, didn't let me go with them, they made me stay where I was. I wasn't arrested, I was stopped. I was not able to move where I wanted to go."

Prior to the about-face, Biden's claim was scrutinised by journalists. Andrew Young, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time - and not the US ambassador to the United Nations, as Biden claimed - told reporters he wasn't arrested during the trip.

"If Mr. Biden, then a United States senator from Delaware, was in fact arrested while trying to visit Mr. Mandela, he did not mention it in his 2007 memoir when writing about a 1970s trip to South Africa," Katie Glueck and Thomas Kaplan wrote in the New York Times.

"A check of available news accounts by The New York Times turned up no references to an arrest," Glueck and Kaplan added.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation told Business Insider South Africa it did not have information on the matter, so could neither confirm nor deny the claim.

Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central's "Daily Show" and himself South African, said he was "personally offended" by Biden's tale.

Amid Biden's admission, he is looking to the South Carolina primary for a second wind after placing fourth and fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, and a second-place finish in Nevada, more than 30 points behind Sanders.

In South Carolina, his campaign is banking on a big turnout from black voters, who have strongly supported him for much of the presidential race. Today, however, that support is less guaranteed as Sanders makes inroads with the demographic.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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