LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11)-- Riann Van Zyl first met Nelson Mandela behind bars. He remembers the former president as a stable force in an otherwise chaotic time for South Africa.
"Someone with a very calm influence on friends and foe," he said.
Van Zyl trained students to be social workers at correctional facilities for a South African university. He met Mandela in the late 1980s.
Mandela would contact Van Zyl after he became President about building a new kind of prison for young people with special rehabilitation programs.
“He said to me, ‘You will know better what to do. I trust you will do the right things. You will find the right programs. But I have one requirement,’ and that he wanted everyone in that correctional facility - to eat together."
According Van Zyl, corrections offers called the idea a security nightmare.
“In South Africa, young people didn’t go to prison for misdemeanors. It was really serious. They had at least committed one murder. At least.”
But Mandela insisted.
"He said that, that was the one thing he really missed [while in prison] is to eat in the company of other people because he usually had to eat - alone."
They built the prison, with school programs, and the large lunch room filled with 500 prisons. Mandela proved right. The prison never had any major problems while Van Zyl was there.
"He understood the fact that the idleness in prison will not cure social ills.”
For Van Zyl, Mandela’s death means South Africa lost what he calls the country’s, “moral cornerstone.”
“I think that we can overcome that loss,” he said. “If we implement the principles and the philosophies that he told us - which were mainly that you learn to hate and therefore you can also learn to love. And love comes easier than hate."
Van Zyl later helped members of Mandela’s cabinet write social legislation.