Joe Biden’s recollection that he was once “arrested” in apartheid South Africa, along with black congressional colleagues, was one of many statements he had to walk back during the Democratic primaries.
But the eventual acknowledgment by Biden, now the Democratic presidential nominee, that the 1976 incident didn’t happen as described contained a new set of errors.
Details of the 1976 trip reviewed by the Washington Examiner show that the then-34-year-old Delaware senator was never in the South African city of Johannesburg, where the fictional arrest episode was said to take place.
U.S. foreign policy toward South Africa was for years a high-profile issue for Biden, the former two-term vice president and 36-year Delaware senator. In 1986, as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee preparing for what would be the first of three presidential bids, Biden grilled Reagan administration officials over U.S. relations with South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Details of Biden’s decade-earlier personal interactions became fodder for debate during the heat of the Democratic primary season this year. In February, he claimed to have been arrested in Johannesburg after attempting to meet Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned African National Congress leader who had long fought the white minority government in South Africa for equal rights for blacks, who made up the bulk of the country’s population.
In February, Biden repeatedly claimed he was arrested by South African officials with then-Rep. Andrew Young, a black Georgia Democrat and leader of the American civil rights movement, “on the streets of Soweto.” The township, in the city of Johannesburg, came to the world’s attention on June 16, 1976, with the Soweto uprising, when mass protests erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than their native language.
Subsequent reporting debunked Biden’s story, and the former vice president was forced to admit the incident never happened. Instead, Biden said, he was “detained” by officials in Johannesburg and “separated” from his congressional delegation at the airport.
Biden’s own campaign website maintains that in 1976, “when he arrived in Johannesburg he refused to be separated from his Congressional Black Caucus colleagues.”
But a review of the itinerary from the trip, collected from declassified State Department cables and news reports from the time, shows no record of the congressional delegation Biden was a part of ever stopping in Johannesburg. According to these cables, the congressional delegation departed from Andrews Air Force Base on Nov. 26, 1976, and first landed in Dakar, Senegal. Next, the group made a stop in Nairobi, Kenya, before landing in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
From there, the group took a bus to Maseru, Lesotho, the 11,583-square-mile country encircled completely by South Africa. After the Lesotho visit, the congressional delegation headed back to Bloemfontein and then Cape Town, South Africa. The group left South Africa when it flew to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the flight back to the Washington, D.C., area.
The trip was organized, according to State Department cables, by the African American Institute, a U.S.-based organization meant to foster ties with African nations and its citizens. On the top of the 1976 trip’s itinerary was a trip to a conference organized by the AAI. At the time, a nonstop flight to Lesotho was unavailable in the United States in part because of technological limitations of airplanes, the lack of a suitable airport in Maseru, and ongoing fighting in Namibia and Angola that made it unsafe to fly a Western flight over those countries.
That meant the State Department needed to facilitate visas for the delegation’s entry into South Africa, a difficult task in 1976 as U.S. pressure on the country to end its apartheid practices was intensifying under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
One diplomatic cable said:
“THERE IS GREAT ANXIETY IN … AAI OVER TRAVEL OF AMERICANS (AS WELL AS AFRICANS) TO AAI CONFERENCE. CONCERNS CENTER AROUND UNCERTAINTY OVER ISSUANCE OF TRANSIT VISAS FOR SOUTH AFRICA,” a cable from Nov. 26, 1976, reads. “AAI REP JACQZ BELIEVES SAG, HAVING ISSUED VISAS FOR CONGRESSIONAL CONTINGENT, MAY HAVE DECIDED NOT RPT NOT TO ISSUE TRANSIT VISAS TO REMAINDER OF AMERICAN PARTICIPANTS.”
Anticipation of visa issues in South Africa led to a minor panic within the State Department and multiple efforts to clear entry for members of the congressional delegation, which included activist Percy Sutton, then Manhattan borough president. Sutton, a black man, later found that his visa was denied after landing in Bloemfontein. South African officials then stopped Sutton, along with a number of his associates, all of whom were black, from leaving the terminal.
Another cable said:
“MANHATTAN BOROUGH (REF B), WHO ‘HAS WRITTEN SECRETARY KISSINGER’ AND IS HOPPING MAD AND MICHAEL PEAY WHO GOT LETTER FROM SA CONGEN BUT NO VISA AND WILL HAVE TO REMAIN IN INTERNATIONAL LOUNGE AWAITING CHARTER FLIGHT FOR MASERU.”
At no point in any of the State Department cables detailing the trip was there any indication that Biden faced resistance from South African authorities. On the contrary, Biden is explicitly noted by State Department officials as receiving permission to pass through the country. Nor is there any mention of a meeting with Nelson Mandela, who at the time was imprisoned on Robben Island, about four hours from Cape Town and 20 hours from Johannesburg, and was scarcely allowed visitors, particularly from anti-apartheid activists.
According to a summary of the trip by the AAI’s then-President William Cotter in the group’s 1976 annual report, the trip was meant for “furthering African development, primarily through manpower training programs” and highlight the importance of international aid to the region. Anti-apartheid and anti-colonial activists also spoke during multiple sessions.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on this story.
Any interaction with South African officials would have surely been noted in State Department communications as well, which detail minor incidents such as members of Congress forgetting their credit cards at restaurants or members of the delegation deciding to go swimming.
One individual on the trip, Randall Robinson, then a staff member for Rep. Charles Diggs, a black Michigan Democrat, recounted an interaction with State Department officials, but not South African police, as Biden claimed, at Bloemfontein airport.
“We were received on the tarmac by a small retinue of jittery white American consular officials whose body language conveyed unmistakably that we had arrived in a very tense place at a very bad time,” Robinson, who is black, wrote in his memoir.
Forty-four years later, details of the long-ago congressional delegation trip became political fodder in the heated Democratic primary fight that Biden ended up winning.
A senior Biden campaign official, Kate Bedingfield, in February, tried to clarify Biden’s claim of having been arrested in South Africa. Rather, it was a “separation,” she said.
“They, he was not allowed to go through the same door that the — the rest of the party he was with,” Bedingfield said. “Obviously, it was apartheid South Africa. There was a white door, there was a black door. He did not want to go through the white door and have the rest of the party go through the black door. He was separated. This was during a trip while they were there in Johannesburg.”
As there is no record of Biden ever being in Johannesburg, any incident would have taken place in Cape Town or Bloemfontein. At the time, nonwhites were barred from sharing airport facilities with white travelers, meaning there was no separate “whites only door” for Biden to travel to.
Until Biden repeated the story in February, his trip to Africa largely escaped scrutiny since his 1978 reelection campaign. That year, his Republican opponent James Baxter Jr. attacked the trip as self-dealing, noting that Biden brought both of his younger brothers along.
“When my senator makes at least five trips abroad at taxpayer’s expense, when he claims one stop was a plane refueling stop, and I find out he went on a wildlife photo safari, when he uses his position to take a relative along on a foreign junket without reimbursing the person’s airplane expenses — that’s an issue,” Baxter Jr. said.
Biden later denied any improper arrangement and noted that the trip was arranged by Diggs, the Michigan congressman. Diggs was later indicted on 29 corruption counts, resigned from the House in 1980, and served 14 months of a three-year sentence for mail fraud.