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Branson: Mandela embraced free markets...with responsibility

Nelson Mandela embraced free markets, but thought that "with great wealth comes great responsibility," Sir Richard Branson reflected Friday, as the world remembered the anti-apartheid icon's struggles and triumphs, which serve as enduring symbols of freedom and equality.

Mandela died Thursday at age 95.

(Read more: Nelson Mandela: A man and a country)

Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" he met Mandela shortly after the anti-apartheid leader was released from prison. Branson said he and Mandela worked together on a number of projects over the years, and that Mandela was always trying to get wealthy individuals to help the poor.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, and U.K. billionaire Richard Branson listen to Peter Gabriel sing 'Biko,' in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Greg Marinovich | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, and U.K. billionaire Richard Branson listen to Peter Gabriel sing 'Biko,' in Johannesburg, South Africa.

When Mandela was released from captivity in 1990, he retained many of the Marxist beliefs he held when he entered prison more than a quarter-century earlier. He supported the nationalization of the banking sector, and, mining, South Africa's most important industry.

But after traveling the world, he changed his views. And ultimately, after taking office in 1994 he embraced fiscal restraint, privatizations of state owned industries, structural reforms to the labor market, and a monetary policy to control inflation.

"He embraced free markets, but equally he felt that business leaders needed to be incredibly responsible in the way they used their wealth … and be forces for good," Branson said. It's "something all us business leaders need to take on board."

Mandela thought that people who are wealthy are also fortunate, Branson said. "Therefore, if Nelson Mandela came to lunch with you, you know it would be a very expensive lunch because he was always trying to get money [from] the rich to give to the poor."

Branson recalled one particular lunch when he thought he was going to get away without writing Mandela a big check for charity. But during coffee, Mandela talked about a $15 million donation that Bill Gates has just given him. "And I realized I actually hadn't gotten away with it," Branson joked.

—By CNBC's Matthew J. Belvedere. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_SquawkCNBC. CNBC Chief International Correspondent Michelle Caruso-Cabrera contributed to this report. Follow her on Twitter @MCaruso_Cabrera.