Richard Branson

Richard Branson remembers Nelson Mandela

December 6, 2013: 3:39 PM ET

The British billionaire reflects on his friendship -- and his business relationship -- with the South African leader.

By Caroline Fairchild, reporter

FORTUNE -- Sir Richard Branson's head today is filled with images of Nelson Mandela dancing. The world leader was always spontaneously swirling with people wherever he went. He was also known to break out in song, but according to Branson his singing wasn't the best.

The billionaire industrialist is among countless mourners around the world today that can't think about much else other than Mandela. The South African political prisoner-turned-president died Thursday at the age of 95.

In an interview with Fortune, the founder of Virgin Group recounted Mandela's lighthearted nature in spite of living through immeasurable tragedy. Branson also shared his thoughts on how Mandela was able to bolster the South African economy through foreign investment. Edited excerpts:

Tell me what you remember about Mandela.

He was the same age as my father, both born in 1918, and they were good friends and became good friends through The Elders [An independent organization working toward peace and global rights that Branson and Mandela established]. Spending time together they would often have a big laugh together, and he had a wonderful sense of humor.

He was always willing to do his best to join in the dancing and start at the dancing. His singing wasn't the best, but he would give it a go.

What was it about Mandela that made him a good businessman, and how did he help South Africa's economy?

He went from being something close to a communist to realizing that that wasn't the answer. What he believed in was benevolent capitalism and believed that business leaders must be a force for good and thought that the country needed capitalism and needed people setting up businesses everywhere.

I received a call one day, and he was on the phone telling me to come to take the next plane down to Africa because his principal health club chain needed rescuing and thousands of jobs would be lost. That is the kind of thing he would do as president. He would just pick up the phone and get foreign people to invest in his economy in South Africa. Through trying to make sure that people like myself and others feeling comfortable dealing with South Africa ... that stabilized it.

You wrote on your website that with Mandela there was "no such thing as a free lunch." What did you mean by that?

He was a great believer that wealthy people are fortunate people and [should do their part], and I would agree with him on that. Wealthy people loved to meet him, and he made sure that he turned them upside down and stripped them of any money in their pockets and then figure out where their credit card was. He had so many causes with so much need in Africa. Unlike some other African leaders, people were willing to give generously to him.

Now that Mandela is gone what does South Africa need to continue to grow and improve?

[Mandela] would be the first one to say that there is a lot to be done but it [South Africa] is a lot better now than it was before.

People need to invest in Africa. Africa is growing at something like 6% a year. The opportunities are enormous. With investment, Africa can become a great economy, and that will pull people out of the poverty trap. That is the best way of addressing the problems, and I think that the returns can be very good. We have companies in Africa that can be some of our most profitable.

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