This drive led him to become a human rights lawyer, and he was eventually appointed the Executive Secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by archbishop Desmond Tutu, and later co-founded the International Center for Transitional Justice.
During his global work for the non-profit organization, he realized that in order to create a successful society, giving the poorest people the dignity of work was as necessary as creating laws and constitutions.
So Van Zyl made an unexpected career change and co-founded Maiyet
, a luxury fashion brand which focuses on skills of master craftsmen from the developing economies.
"Maiyet is is trying to find people who are at the bottom of the economic pyramid, but who possess extraordinary and rare skills," he says.
"We want to find the next generation of global artisans, whether they're in Indonesia, Peru, Mongolia, Kenya, or India and to harness those skills, but do so in a way that is relevant and applicable to the modern luxury fashion market."
The South African had almost no experience in fashion when he started the brand four years ago, but says he found similarities between what he does now and his previous career, law.
"There are a tremendous number of parallels," he says. "I think that's because building great brands also requires a sense of structure and a sense of discipline and logic in addition to creativity and passion. And the law certainly gives you the latter."
Van Zyl also thinks that, in spite of the contrast between fashion and human rights law, there is continuity between his two professional lives.
"At the core is trying to find people... who don't have the kinds of opportunities that we do, and try to give them greater opportunity and greater dignity," he says.