Philani Dladla’s story is a beautiful homage to the power of books and reading. The young South African first began his love affair with books and reading when he was 12-years old and given The Last White Parliament by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, by his mother’s employer. Although his ability to read English was almost non-existent, he refused to be discouraged. He read the book slowly, several times, encouraged by his mother’s employer to discover why it was a special book. Shortly after their relationship began, the employer died, but in his will he left Philani 500 collectible books which included classics by Dickens, Bronte and Shakespeare, to name a few. As Philani states in an interview, “I started reading and I couldn’t stop. I spent most of my time indoors with my books, they were my best friends”.
As he grew into a teenager, Philani’s life changed. He fell in with a rough crowd at school and was eventually expelled. He grew depressed and at his mother’s suggestion, moved to Joburg, South Africa in 2008, to try and start fresh. Although life started out well – a new job and a new flat to live in, eventually the temptations of the city caught up with him and he began using drugs. He lost his job and his apartment and found himself living under the Nelson Mandela Bridge, homeless and an addict. The one thing Philani didn’t lose though were his books. To fund his habit, he would stand on the street and sell book reviews to passing motorists and pedestrians. Word spread quickly and people began lining up to get reviews from the newly dubbed “Pavement Bookworm”. A few years after he began selling the reviews, the writer and documentary film-maker Tebogo Malope interviewed Philani and posted the video online. It instantly went viral. More people from all over South Africa, including the media, came to seek him out, and Philani used this opportunity as a “wake up call” to get clean and do something productive with his life and the money he was making from his reviews.
The first thing he did was start the Book Reader’s Club for underprivileged children in Joubert Park, where he began to teach children, after school, to read. As he says, “it’s a way of thanking books for saving my life…I could have ended up dead on the streets”. He has also written his own book, The Pavement Bookworm, which tells his amazing story and how the influence of books in his life rescued him.
Philani has a website where you can learn more about him, read his reviews and become involved in his mission. Additionally, he provides links to services for those who find themselves in at-risk situations and need help. This young man is truly inspiring and through his struggles and triumphs, he shows us all that the ability to read is not an activity to take for granted. Books fill our lives with richness and meaning, and in Philani’s case were truly life-savers. He took the one thing that meant something to him during his darkest days, and created a beautiful new life for himself and so many others.
–Molly Brown, ILN Content Officer