With nothing but Joburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge over his head, Philani Dladla had hit rock bottom. But rediscovering his love of reading has helped him turn his life around. By Nwabisa Nqumbela
Philani soon learnt that life doesn’t always go as planned and fell under the influence of a bad crowd, drinking and partying regularly. When a drunken brawl ended in a stabbing, Philani was faced with his first setback. ‘I stayed in hospital for a couple of months and I missed the opportunity to complete my studies.’
If at first you don’t succeed…
Determined not to let his predicament get in the way of doing what he loved, after he recovered, Philani did a short course that qualified him to work as a caregiver. He got a job in a home for the elderly and things started looking up for the then 22-year-old. He was earning enough money to leave the nest and start life on his own in the bustling city of Johannesburg. ‘It was such a wonderful feeling to be able to fend not just for myself, but for my family too.’
However, Philani’s newfound stability was short-lived, as big-city life exposed him to the dark world of drugs. ‘It did not take long before all I thought about was one hit after another,’ he recalls. What started as experimentation soon became a fully-fledged addiction. ‘I decided to take out a loan of R15 000. I even quit my job, thinking that I had enough money to last me for a while.’
Forced to sell household appliances and skip out on his rent in order to fuel his addiction, within just a few months, he found himself evicted, embarrassed and all alone in a city far away from his small home town of Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal.
Hitting rock bottom
With nowhere else to go, Philani found a place to rest his head under Nelson Mandela Bridge. Desperate, destitute and with nothing to lose, he recalled his love of reading and sought refuge in the books he had inherited from his mother’s boss. ‘When I was 11 years old, my mother’s employer gave me a book titled The Last White Parliament. He told me, if I could read that book and give him a review, he would give me more books.’
With little experience in reading and writing in English, this proved quite a challenge. Philani, however, was eager to impress. He spent all his playtime reading and rereading the book until he understood it, and gave his review. Taken with the boy’s determination, the old man left his novels in Philani’s care when he passed on.
Nowhere to go but up
It was while revisiting these old books that Philani felt inspired to turn his life around. He began reviewing all of the books he read and then selling them to motorists along Empire Road, basing the price of the book on his review of it.
Sitting outside the entrance to Wits University with his books, Philani was noticed by the cinematographer and storyteller Tebogo Malope, who was intrigued by the homeless man’s unique approach to sales. Eager to tell Philani’s unusual story, Tebogo filmed a short documentary on the roadside reader that soon went viral.
‘Being homeless meant that I had no access to the internet, a smartphone or television, but I quickly learnt about the video when people started coming out in scores wanting to buy my books and help my situation.’
The Pavement Bookworm
Philani’s story went global and he was soon dubbed ‘the pavement bookworm’ by inspired fans from all over the world. While many people would have used all the publicity for their own personal gain, he has recognised the importance of moulding young minds and taken the opportunity to begin a literacy project, the Book Readers’ Club, for Joburg’s underprivileged youth.
‘I’m in a good space. All that I want is help for SA’s children. They are the leaders of tomorrow; if we can invest in young minds, then we will have won half the battle.’
In January this year, Philani launched his memoir, The Pavement Bookworm, which has been met with great acclaim. Amid all of this attention, he remains humble and still lives in the poverty-stricken inner-city community, where he is committed to sharing the power of reading.
How you can help
To donate books, call Philani on 079 723 7748 or visit his website, www.pavementbookworm.co.za.