1986: Apartheid South Africa

Joe Biden was a prominent opponent of apartheid South Africa and fought against U.S. aid to the regime. But he also lied about being arrested while trying to visit Nelson Mandela.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., tells the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Secretary of State George Shultz that U.S. policy toward South Africa amounted to a shameful lack of backbone on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 23, 1986.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., speaks to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Secretary of State George Shultz on U.S. policy toward South Africa in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 1986. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

By the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration was coming under pressure over its support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, with growing calls in the United States to impose economic sanctions. President Ronald Reagan resisted these calls in the name of Cold War realpolitik, and Joe Biden emerged as a prominent critic of the U.S. approach, helping pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 over attempts by Reagan to veto.

During a 1986 confrontation at a Senate hearing with Secretary of State George Shultz, Biden described the Afrikaner regime as a “stupid, puppet government” and called for the U.S. to decisively shift support to the opposition, despite the perception that Afrikaners were an ally against the Soviet Union during this period. Although he had taken part in trips to South Africa during the apartheid period, Biden has been criticized for fictionalizing an incident in which he said had been arrested while attempting to visit an incarcerated Nelson Mandela.

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