Philani Dladla is 28 years old, a previously homeless man who reviews and sells books. He travels around the streets of Johannesburg with a small library and sells and reviews books for those passing by, he prefers this to begging for money. He has a difficult personal history, but his passion for books and reading has led to viral videos, a TED talk and numerous interviews with national and international publications. Added to his recent accolades is his very own memoir, titled ‘The Pavement Bookworm’. Published in 2015, Dladla’s book is one of those timeless, inspiring, young South African stories.
Philani Dladla is an exceptional character with a painful history which he has overcome in the most remarkable way. Dladla grew up in KwazuluNatal, and when he was 12, he received a gift, his very first book, from his mother’s employer, who also left him his book collection when he died. Shortly thereafter, Dladla and his mother moved to Johannesburg and for a time he worked in a retirement home, where he enjoyed spending time with and chatting to the elderly residents. But now a young man in a big city, Dladla started spending time with the wrong crowd. Soon he began experimenting with drugs, lost his job and found himself living on the streets, under the Nelson Mandela bridge, where he stayed for very many years.
Living on the streets was an incredibly difficult time. Dlala battled with drug abuse, assault, sexual violence, hunger and addiction. He also battled depression, attempted suicide and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But in the midsts of all this he realised that only he could save himself.
“I decided I needed to save myself. I chose not to keep any money, so I could avoid buying drugs.” Anything I got I immediately spent on food … and books,” he said.
Throughout all these trials and tribulations one thing always remained with him, his book collection which was given by to him by his mother’s employer. Through the books he inherited, Dladla started working the streets, he is a learned street-kid after all. He refused to beg but recognised a gap in the market – he started lending out his books, a mobile library of sorts. He also decided to review these books and sell them to motorists on Empire Road in Johannesburg. This is how he pulled his life together.
Documentary filmmaker Tebogo Malope interviewed him about his roadside bookstall and posted the video online where it went viral, since then he has gained international attention for his remarkable story about how he overcame poverty and drug addiction. He gave an inspiring TEDxTalk in Johannesburg in 2014
In 2015 he published his autobiography called ‘The Pavement Bookworm’, it is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read. It reminds me of Kabelo Mabalane’s ‘I Ran for my Life’, which is another story of overcoming drug addiction.
‘The Pavement Bookworm’ is not a typical book which tells the story of a black person who has fallen from grace and came back up to find his way. This is a book which tells the story of many black South African men, many of which will never be written or read.
Today Dladla encourages others to get into reading and donates books to charities to spread the written word. His story proves that helping others does not necessary mean that you need huge amounts of money, it’s the time you spend helping others that matters. Presence matters.
Now an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Philani’s story is one of triumph and redemption that will touch the hearts of all who read it. ‘The Pavement Bookworm’ tells a story of courage, the power of literature and also the power of good habits overcoming the bad and how Dladla’s spirit, despite the hardship, was never broken.