Philani Dladla, a man who overcame drug addiction and living on the streets through the power of books, addressed the recent Big Issue fund-raiser breakfast at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town.
Now known as “the pavement bookworm” he shared his story with an awe-struck audience, including people like the co-founder of the Readers and Writers Society, Mxolisi James Majola, who declared Philani a “hero”. Talking to broadcaster Nancy Richards on the podium, Philani ushered the audience through his story of despair, hope and redemption.
His spiralling drug habit meant he ended up homeless, under a bridge, and in decidedly inhospitable company. But he had been introduced to the power of reading at a young age and had inherited 500 books from one of his mother’s employers.
Nevertheless, he went of the rails in high school. “I became a bully beating up other kids, and doing all sorts of naughty things until I got kicked out,” he said. He developed a taste for alcohol, dropped out of school altogether, and moved to Johannesburg.
“I was sleeping under the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Braamfontein. It was very difficult. You’re worried about the rats – if they’re going to come and bite you. And some people would wake up at night and go and do a number two nearby.”
When he says reading saved his life, he means it. Through addiction, street-life and a suicide attempt, he leaned on books – the same 500 he’d inherited – and on a quiet belief that some path, somewhere, would open to him.
He quit drugs and started selling books at the corner of Yale and Empire Roads in Johannesburg, near Wits University. He also started discussing authors and recommending reads to passers-by, which really captured people’s attention. True to form, he used the money from his sales to buy food, not just for himself, but for other people in need.
Today Philani rents a flat and runs a book reader’s club for kids in Joubert Park. Kids meet him there after school where he hands them books on condition that they come back and tell him about what they’ve learned, and to talk about their dreams.
Listening to his story at the Table Bay Hotel’s elegant breakfast left sobering impressions all around. “He’s almost the classic rags to riches story – but not traditional riches, more riches of the heart,” said Tamara Kolevsohn, one of the breakfast attendees. “I think everyone left feeling warm and uplifted.”
And, from other comments overheard afterwards, deeply humbled. And impressed.
The Big Issue (TBI) Breakfasts, which happen every two months or so and which the Table Bay Hotel generously hosts for free, help TBI raise funds through ticket sales. They’re also a way for TBI to attract ambassadors. Attendees, some of whom are new to TBI, often spread information about TBI’s projects and play important roles in bringing attention and resources to various initiatives. More than 80 people attended the last breakfast along with one TBI vendor and three staffers. Representatives from Werksmans Attorneys, who’ve been tremendous supporters of TBI, attended as VIPs. The next breakfast is set for 6 April. Anyone interested in attending can buy tickets online from Webtickets at www.webtickets.co.za or from Hippo Communications firstname.lastname@example.org or 021 554 6270.