The “Pavement Bookworm” on how reading saved him from drugs

Philani Dladla

On Wednesday, the city of eThekwini’s parks, recreation and culture department hosted the One City, One Book campaign to promote a culture of reading among Durbanites. Author and recovering drug addict, Philani Dladla – whose book, Pavement Bookworm, was selected as the campaign’s book to read for 2017/2018 – spoke to The Daily Vox about his journey of drug abuse, homelessness, and his love of reading.

I was born in Port Shepstone and grew up there until I moved to Johannesburg, where my mother worked as a domestic worker. I grew up in an unhealthy environment. My father was an abusive and an angry man, he thought that disciplining a child was all about beating them up. He would beat us up even for the little things that kids often do when growing up. His family didn’t approve of his marriage with my mother and tensions mounted within the family.

Growing up I was a very problematic child; even at school I was ill disciplined. In my community people didn’t like me much and always said I was a bad influence because I drank and smoked dagga. Nobody wanted me near their children with the fear that I would influence them to do all the bad things that I did. There was a point where I felt the pressure of being a bad person in the community; I started taking things personally and that’s when I attempted to commit suicide.

Sometimes when you grow up in a big family where some of the members are well off and you, on the other hand, are struggling, life becomes hard. My mom was the only breadwinner, my dad was also dependent on her. It was frustrating for us as children because we didn’t understand why he had to depend on her.

After my failed attempt at suicide I went to stay with my mother in Johannesburg, where I found a job as a health worker at home for the aged. Everything was going fine until I started using drugs. My habit started off as an experiment which became worse at some point. All my salary went to feed my habit until I left my job. I couldn’t work anymore but still needed money to buy drugs, that’s when I started selling everything I had.

I sold my furniture and other things. I couldn’t afford to pay rent anymore so I got kicked out of my apartment. I found myself under the Nelson Mandela Bridge. The experience there was ravaging, seeing people who had nothing and knew nothing else either than using drugs was depressing. But I was now one of them. Others died in front of me and it was an ugly sight.

I was hooked but I still loved reading and would read books and review them. I also sold second-hand books to the people on the street as I didn’t believe in begging for money from people, I had pride. I would go to Empire Road and review books for people, tell them about different books. Some were wondering how come a dirty guy like me would know so much about different genres of books.

From all the books I had read and reviewed, I found an inspiration to write my own. On the pavement that I slept on, that’s where I started documenting my life. I reflected on my life and realised that I was on a verge of dying, as I had been admitted to the hospital after an overdose. The fear pushed me to write a book; I was convinced that I was dying so I had to write a book with the hope that if I die someone will read my book and feel inspired to turn their life around.

I wrote The Pavement Bookworm not only to tell my own story, but to raise awareness about the true life of many South Africans who find themselves homeless and enslaved by drugs. I wrote this book to challenge the way the homeless and drug addicts are perceived in the society. I am grateful to all the people who made my dream of publishing a book a reality – they saved me from myself.