If you drove through Johannesburg’s Empire Road in early 2014, you might have found standing on the sidewalk a wiry young man wearing ragged clothes. Philani Dladla could be mistaken for a beggar, but instead of holding out his hands in succour, he was clutching a bunch of books. All he wanted was to tell motorists and passers-by about the latest novel he was reading.
“I would tell them, ‘Hey, this is a very good John Grisham book. It’s about a partner who double-crossed his business partners,’ They would say, ‘How do you know so much about books? Why don’t you sell them?’ And I would say, ‘No, I value these books. I’m just here to tell you what is in these books.’”
Dubbed the Pavement Bookworm, Dladla has become a common feature of the cityscape. He was once homeless and slept under the city’s iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge with other vagrants. But instead of begging, he wanted to give people value for their money. “I started this because I like reading and sharing stories with people.”
Customers have to call him to arrange a date and time to meet. To reach Greenside he takes a taxi from the city, carrying as many books as his two hands can handle.
“These days people are very generous, they support with book donations so I don’t buy anymore. That is why I no longer carry a lot of books and go up and down.”
He now earns enough to pay for food, clothes and rent for an apartment in Johannesburg’s city centre. He shares his tiny fifth floor apartment with a roommate. His bedroom leads into the kitchen. Trade paperbacks of some of his favourite popular fiction lie on top and on the side of his bed – Stephen King, Jodi Picoult and Clive Cussler amongst them. The only other books that stand out are the Bible and a dictionary. On the wall, next to a clock, is a framed newspaper clipping of Dladla.
When he talks, he averts his eyes to his lap. He apologises for the way he looks because of the cut above his left eye. As a result of violent confrontations with jealous vagrants in recent months, he has had to move his business from Empire Road to the trendy Greenside suburb, selling books in front of the restaurants of Gleneagles Road.
Not too far from where he lives is Lepeng Pre-Primary School, where he reads to the children. This book club, as he calls it, started with just three children. Now there are fifty-five of them – and a couple of adults – who eagerly listen to him.
Ever since becoming a bookseller, he said he has gained an understanding of people just by their preference in books. At the same time, he has formed strong relationships with his customers. They donate books to him either in person or through his website.
When filmmaker, Tebogo Malope, posted a video interview with him, the local media latched onto his inspiring story of how he turned his fortunes around. However, if one listens carefully, Dladla’s life plays out like a karmic morality tale. Once a bully, he is now a victim of Johannesburg’s streets. To become the Pavement Bookworm, he has had to endure some of life’s biggest obstacles.
Dladla’s first encounter with books came on his twelfth birthday. Joseph Castlyne, his mother’s boss at the clinic she worked at, gifted Dladla The Last White Parliament by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. It is a personal account of Slabbert’s time as opposition leader of the National Party during South Africa’s apartheid years.
Castlyne made a deal with Dladla. “He promised me that if I could read that book and tell him about it he would buy me another one. That’s what kept me reading.”
When Castlyne died in 1998, he left 500 books for Dladla.
Dladla grew up in an abusive home in the rural Oshabeni Village on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. His father regularly beat him and his two younger brothers.
“I don’t remember one thing I learnt from that man. The only thing I learnt from him was pain. He liked his seven dogs more than he liked us.”
His mother took on the fatherly role, singlehandedly raising the boys.
One of the cool guys
In a bid to fit in with the “cool guys” during his high school years, Dladla started drinking, smoking, bullying other schoolchildren and stealing their lunch. “It was nice to be a bully because girls liked us. I wanted to be the baddest [sic] guy. I ended up being kicked out of school.”
In one violent incident he was stabbed in the chest. The scar, he said, is too unsightly to show anyone.
“When I got stabbed, I lost my mom’s hard-earned savings. It turned septic and took more than two months to heal. When I was discharged from hospital, people from my community started laughing at me. The only way out for me was to die.”
He tried hanging himself. When he kicked the chair from underneath his feet, he realised the pain was too much to bear and began struggling for his life. He could not scream for help. Luckily, his brother found him and saved him. “My brother ran to the room and quickly put the chair under my feet and cut the rope.”
Soon thereafter, he tried to overdose himself on tablets and even jumped in front of a moving car. It was then his mother decided to send him to Johannesburg, thinking that living on his own might make him more responsible. It almost did not work.
When Dladla moved to Johannesburg in 2008, he got a job as a care worker at an old age home. He bought drugs with his earnings, experimenting with everything from crack and cocaine to crystal meth and rocks.
Not long after he started skipping work, often too high to leave his apartment. He found he was not getting paid enough to fund his habit. Eventually, in 2011, he was on the streets after failing to pay the rent.
Going back to his mother’s home was not an option. He would rather perish on the street, he said.
“There were so many guys dying on the street so my hope was that I would smoke until I die.”
But a turning point occurred in 2012 when he observed how other homeless people were being treated like “rubbish bins”, being given old clothes and stale food.
He decided to take control of his life. He first started by trying to give up his drug addiction. At the same time, he started selling books on the side of the road. From the money he made he started buying and giving instant soup packs and bread to the homeless people he used to live with under the Nelson Mandela Bridge.
As soon as Dladla showed his generous side, jealous vagrants started beating him and threatening to kill him. Suddenly the bully became the victim. “When they see you are trying to get your life back, they don’t like that. They say, ‘we are dying, so what’s so special about you? You must die too. Up till today, I get robbed and beaten at least twice a month. Next time, I fear they will kill me, because they said they would do so.”
One time, during a television interview, the same homeless people for whom he had given soup and bread showed up and threatened to kill him. He and the crew fled as they were being pelted with stones.
To avoid being beaten or killed, Dladla has decided to move back to his home in KwaZulu-Natal until “things quieten down”.
He is saddened at leaving behind the children at the pre-school after creating a strong bond with them.
He is even looking at starting a non-profit organisation that would take care of the children and provide them with bursaries. His reading club, he said, is meant to teach children about the wonders of reading, keep them off the streets and away from drugs. “My mission is to get more children reading. Even if these thugs can rob and kill me before I go home, at least these kids will have something to remember me. You can always dream a new dream,” said Dladla.
– This article originally appeared in the January 2015 edition of Al Jazeera Magazine.