CHARLESTON, S.C. — At least three times this month, Joseph R. Biden Jr. has asserted that he was arrested as he sought to visit the anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in prison, even saying that Mr. Mandela later thanked him for going to such an effort.
And for a week, Mr. Biden’s campaign declined to answer questions seeking comment and clarification on those remarks, which were rebutted by a former United States ambassador to the United Nations in an article in The New York Times. Mr. Biden did not mention the episode in his memoir, had not spoken of it prominently on the campaign trail, and a review of available news accounts by The Times did not turn up any mention of an arrest.
But on Tuesday, Kate Bedingfield, a deputy campaign manager, said Mr. Biden was referring to an episode in which he was separated from black colleagues in Johannesburg while on a congressional delegation trip to South Africa in the 1970s. It was the campaign’s first explanation to date — but one that still left many questions unanswered and did not square with Mr. Biden’s most recent remarks.
“He was separated from his party at the airport,” Ms. Bedingfield said when pressed by reporters following Tuesday’s presidential debate here.
When a reporter noted that being separated did not constitute an arrest, she repeated, “It was a separation. They, he was not allowed to go through the same door that the — the rest of the party he was with. 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.”
Ms. Bedingfield’s account echoes comments Mr. Biden has made in the past, including in his 2013 statement marking Mr. Mandela’s death — but that is not what he has relayed most recently as he campaigned in Nevada and South Carolina, two diverse states.
“I had the great honor of meeting him,” he said of Mr. Mandela, speaking in South Carolina earlier this month. “I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him” on Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela was imprisoned. Soweto is more than 700 miles away from Robben Island.
Andrew Young, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1977 to 1979, told The Times that he had traveled with Mr. Biden to South Africa but had never been arrested there, and he cast doubt on the idea that members of Congress were arrested in the country.
“No, I was never arrested and I don’t think he was, either,” Mr. Young said in a telephone interview last week.
Mr. Biden also said recently that when Mr. Mandela was released, the civil rights leader thanked Mr. Biden during a trip to Washington.
“After he got free and became president, he came to Washington and came to my office,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Mandela while speaking in Las Vegas. “He threw his arms around me and said, ‘I want to say thank you.’ I said, ‘What are you thanking me for, Mr. President?’ He said, ‘You tried to see me. You got arrested trying to see me.’”
Ms. Bedingfield said that “it was a reference to Mandela coming to D.C. after he was released from prison, he met with Senator Biden, thanked him for his work, his anti-apartheid work.”
And Mr. Biden has previously said that Mr. Mandela thanked him for his support of anti-apartheid sanctions — but that was not his emphasis as he campaigned this month and spoke three times of being arrested.