Fact checkers cannot verify Biden claim of arrest in Africa going to see Mandela

Former frontrunner Biden's claims about being arrested in South Africa don't pass a basic stress test

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Joe Biden speaks at memorial for Nelson Mandela
Joe Biden speaks at memorial for Nelson Mandela
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Updated: February 25, 2020 - 10:06am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Fact-checkers for two of the country's most venerable newspapers say they cannot find evidence to support Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's recent campaign trail story about getting arrested in South Africa while trying to see Nelson Mandela.

“This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid," Biden said two weeks ago while campaigning in South Carolina. "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 see him on Robbens Island.” 

The New York Times and The Washington Post have examined the claim extensively and concluded that it doesn’t pass a stress test, that it has a hard time even going for a jog.

Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the purported arrest, refutes Biden’s claim that they were arrested together in South Africa.

“No, I was never arrested, and I don’t think he was, either,” Young told The Times.

Young considers Biden a friend but is planning on voting for Michael Bloomberg.

The Post, which gave the story its lowest veracity rating, Four Pinocchios, points out that it couldn't find any news accounts in U.S. publications of the arrest, when Biden would have been a senator.

The Time also checked news accounts but acknowledges that arrest records in South Africa are difficult to find. 

Both papers acknowledge that Biden, once the 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner, made no mention in his 2007 memoir of the purported arrest.

Winning over a vast percentage of African-American voters is something Biden has long touted as one of his strongest attributes as a candidate.

The South Carolina primary is Saturday, and a win is critical for Biden to stay in play as a top challenger to current delegate leader Bernie Sanders. Unlike Biden, Sanders did get caught up in the action of the civil rights movement.

“Biden has never been shy about tooting his own horn," The Post writes in its fact check. "So it’s pretty surprising that on the eve of a primary critical to his election hopes, he suddenly recall being arrested in South Africa -- and being thanked by Mandela for being arrested. There is no evidence for either claim; neither appears remotely credible.”

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