We talk to Philani Dladla about hard times, education, and how books took him from homeless to internet hero.
In November 2013, the South African filmmaker Tebogo Malope interviewed a peculiar street vendor in Johannesburg as part of a series of conversations with everyday folk around town. A 24-year-old homeless man with a trove of books, all of which he’d read, this vendor would chat about them with passers-by, sell his wares at rates scaled to his reviews, and give a few away free to kids. He explained to Malope that he’d used books to overcome addiction, find merit in life, and get out of abject poverty—and that he wanted to inspire others, especially kids, to find value in reading. Posting the two-part interview to YouTube, Malope dubbed him the “Pavement Bookworm,” a name that stuck as the unsuspecting vendor quickly became a cultural hero and internet meme.
The Pavement Bookworm’s real name is Philani Dladla. Born in the town of Oshabeni in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal, Dladla fell into a pattern of bad behavior coping mechanisms as a child. He became a school bully to fit in with the cool kids, got expelled in 2005, and tried vocational school, but skipped many classes to get stoned. Later he fell in with a bad crowd, got stabbed in the chest, and ate up his mother’s savings convalescing, earning communal scorn. Depressed, he tried to commit suicide; his family sent him to Johannesburg in 2008 to get away from his tainted home and find a new life. But Dladla fell into drugs again and wound up homeless and borderline suicidal under the city’s Nelson Mandela Bridge by 2011.
Yet Dladla still had 500 books, passed down to him by his mother’s old employer, who’d encouraged Dladla to read since he was a child. Realizing how low he’d sunk and witnessing death and degradation around him, Dladla dove into books for solace and inspiration, discussing them with others. Around 2012 he realized he could sell his tomes, raising money to buy more books as well as food for himself and his homeless friends. His shtick turned him into a local Johannesburg character, putting him on Malope’s, and then the nation’s, radar.
After Malope’s interview went up, Dladla was deluged with business, support, and opportunities. He developed a reliable clientele, many of whom would donate old books, and managed to get an apartment. His impromptu book clubs turned into a series of early-reader programs, then into after-school clubs helping kids with their homework as they waited for their parents. Hired as a motivational speaker, he gave a TED Talk and parlayed this attention into support for his literacy activism, all while continuing his book reviews. He hopes to develop scholarships to help at-risk kids continue their education beyond clubs like his.
But life is not inspiration porn. The success that’s come to Dladla since Malope’s videos went viral has come with some bitter consequences. By the end of 2014, the homeless friends Dladla was still supporting decided that he’d gotten too big for his britches and started to attack him—beating him at one point to within an inch of his life. Known in the lower-class world as a newly (moderately) wealthy upstart, he was robbed several times and even threatened while being interviewed by a TV crew. As 2015 progressed, Dladla had to move back home for a while, hoping that the antipathy toward him in Johannesburg would calm down.
This past September, Dladla achieved a major goal: He became an author. The local BlackBird Books released his memoir, The Pavement Bookworm: A True Story. But Dladla has yet to hold an official launch for the book and the work has not received much media attention. Eager to find out why Dladla’s been a bit off the radar and how his status as a human interest idol (and the problems that has caused for him) have affected his life and work, GOOD got in touch with Dladla at his Oshabeni home for a brief but ranging conversation.
I know you had to leave Johannesburg for a while … where are you right now and what are you doing?
I’m home. We had a very good year with the readers’ club and my book got published, so there’s a lot to be proud [of] … though I had some difficulties.
Are the homeless people you used to live with feeling less hostile toward you now?
It turned them sour that I was able … to be clean after we’d all been addicts for so long. Maybe they thought I was trying to look like I was better than them. It’s hard to understand the street life. When you’re all mates, it’s fine… because you’re all going to die. But when they see one, like, I’m trying to regain control of my life, then … I don’t know, it turns people against you.
I wanted them to also try and regain control of their lives. But some of those guys have already died … some because of overdoses and some just fighting for simple things like for a street corner. Some of them are losing their lives as we’re speaking now. Sometimes when I drive … by Empire Road I still see three of them still there doing the same thing. It just breaks my heart.
You’ve got your own book out now, but I haven’t seen much coverage of it. How did you get that book deal and what has the process of becoming a writer been like for you?
I started writing this book when I was on the street. I was narrating my life everyday. This manuscript was just surviving until it made it into the right hands.
People are loving it. But when it was the launch week, I was hospitalized, so we had to delay the launch. It hasn’t officially launched yet. But it’s out already. [Still], I’ve not been the same since then. I’ve been suffering from depression. Depression is just killing me, maybe because I’ve seen a lot of things out there—sad things that I can’t change.
How are you fighting that?
Oh man, I’m just reading books—stories that bring hope. Sometimes spending time with kids and people who make me laugh. It’s just hard. Depression is difficult. People can’t see it on the outside … But that is why we couldn’t even do the proper book launch … Sometimes when you’re dealing with things like depression you wind up losing interest in things.
Now that it’s the end of the year, it’s the end of the school term. There’s nothing so sad as seeing kids who are very hardworking, but they’re just not that gifted when it comes to academics … but they’re trying very hard. And then when term gets out they get the worst results and it breaks them and it breaks you too because you know how hard they’ve been trying. It also affects you when you see them becoming depressed because they think that it’s their fault. To some people that’s a small thing, but when you really care … it affects you also.
What can you do for those kids?
If you can help them have ... all the necessities … and maybe some extra afternoon lessons just for them to catch up even if they’re not that good.
The literacy programs that you started offered kids support like that. Which of your programs are still active today?
That keeps me going, the kids’ readers’ club. It’s a family of like 250 kids now. I collect books from people who have enough to afford books. I give them to the kids … and they love them. I also help out when they have homework or schoolwork. We’re a support system.
People might say that your case is exceptional and that just reading won’t improve every child’s life to the same degree. So what benefits do you see in the kids you work with?
It helps them a lot. Some of these kids have never had a book in their lives. Their parents can’t even afford books. … [And what we do] isn’t just them reading [instead of playing or sitting around waiting for their parents to get home], but reading with understanding. I always encourage them to say if there’s any word that they don’t understand. We always have dictionaries and we always have thesauruses … [Also,] some of them come from broken homes. Some of them come from better backgrounds than others. But to read with people from different backgrounds, living like one family and knowing that you’re equal like a group, like a community, like you’re going together—that at the end of the day you’re going to different places but you belong to one special group that we call our family…
Have other people started to follow your example and found their own reading groups?
Yeah, many people got inspired by this and started doing the same thing. It makes me happy because even if I die today at least I’ve done something.
Some people might worry that you’re an exceptional person. If you’re not around the groups might dissolve, or other people might not be as successful at leading them as you were. Do you think these groups will endure?
I get mail from people every day wanting to donate books. Even with the economy—in South Africa, the rand is not doing very well … they’re donating a lot of books. I’ve got a very good team of people who’re helping me. When we’ve got thousands and thousands of books, we give them to these people who are running small reading groups in their own communities … What I want to see are these guys who are starting movements in their communities not giving up because it’s not as easy for them as it is for me to get book donations. So we always go and give to them.
E-books are taking over, but paperbacks are still there, especially for poor people who can’t afford these iPads. And how can you ask your favorite author to autograph an e-book? So people will always be donating books and we’ll always be growing, getting these kids reading.
What happens when these kids leave the family and support system you’ve created?
[My] foundation has started securing some funds for them to go to institutions of higher education when they’ve finished school so they don’t just finish and don’t know where to go … That will drive them, knowing that somebody out there is trying hard for [them] to stay here even if other kids think [they] don’t belong. But these kids, I want to see them becoming a success, so I’m going to try everything in my power securing some power for them.
There are a lot of organizations that theoretically want to support kids like that. Do you think it’s important for their motivation to know that it’s not just a faceless, abstract NGO, but instead a person or a network or a family that wants them to succeed?
Yeah, it makes a very big difference. They don’t want to disappoint their parents. They don’t want to disappoint me … They know that I had all this attention, people wanting to know about me. They know that I could have asked for things to make my own life better, but I chose to ask for things to help them succeed. They know everything. It’s not like a big company where you don’t know anybody. It’s somebody you grow up with. We know each other’s dreams.
Where do you see your work, your life going? What are your hopes for the future?
Maybe when I’m an old man watching the television … seeing the kids from my readers’ club. Or going to a bookstore and seeing a book written by a kid from my readers’ club … It’s a long-time … investment [but] if I can see these kids becoming a success, I’ll say job well done.