A Day In The Life of a Street Sweeper

updated: 18/01/2023

Recording memories and stories about different people and places has become a bit of an obsession of mine. I love to go deep into the mind of the person telling the story and take a snap of what is happening in there. Is it a sad story, is it a first hand experience? Has that really happened?

Street Cleaning in South Africa

RSA Street SweeperIn 1994 after having lived in Canada for 27 years I returned home to Cape Town, South Africa, and during my first few weeks back was astounded by how much South Africans had changed. I had got used to Canada, its laws, its social benefits for immigrants, the cleanliness of the streets, and all that Canada had to offer and coming back now was a fascination for me and I saw my country with fresh eyes. I could not believe how much I had missed South Africa and its people. The coloured people particularly – this writer is coloured and Muslim; other people were amazed by my amazement. Where they saw negatives I saw positives.

The Street Sweeper

After being in the country for one or two weeks and making notes and getting to know South Africa all over again, I was standing with my late father at the gate one afternoon with my younger brother, when a coloured guy in his fifties or thereabouts, came hopping or bobbing down the street with a broom. He was stoned out of his head, singing in rhyme, and as he approached, he bowed to me and said, hello my lady, and started to sing to me. My father was irritated; my brother too. But I wasn’t. I was startled by the words and the rhyme, so I joined in. Next to me my father grumbled and said not to waste my time with these people; they were just drunks. But that’s not what I saw.

As he sang in rhyme, he would stop for me to continue and I would bounce back with rhyme; it was like a coloured rap. I could not believe that drunk as he was that his poetry was perfect and magnetic. I walked with him, encouraging him to sing. I did not share the same view as my brother and father. They were inundated every day with people knocking on doors for food and being called nuisances. I saw talent that was fresh and unique and was so impressed that I wished I could have done something about it. When I came back to the gate my brother and father told me not to take note of these drunks. I was thinking: how could I meet him again and find out more about him? He was a poet, not a sweeper. His alcoholism attested to the life he’d lived. He swept the streets of the city during winter and summer. The former regime had left people like him behind.


It was like my meeting with an Indian guy who had a fish and chips shop and I asked for a half packet of slap chips. He said he could not sell me a half a packet, only a full packet. I asked him for a full packet and told him to halve it. He said he could not do it as he did not know how many chips should go into a full packet. I asked him to give me the chips, halved it, and paid full price. He felt bad and pointed to his fryer and told me to look at it – that it cost a lot of money to heat a fryer, and if he sold me a half packet he would have to do it for everyone. My brother had to drag me out of the shop so confused I was about his logic.

Why did I like the stories of the sweeper and the Indian guy? The answer was that I had missed this kind of poetry and logic; that South Africans had struggled, that there was poetry and poverty and that I could not live without it. Like a coloured man said to me at a fruit stand, “under de Klerk we had apartheid and we had jobs. Under Mandela we have freedom, and we have no jobs.” My life in Canada had been good economically, but it had bleached me out as a human being. I never forgot the sweeper and the chips guy, and wrote a collection of short stories called Postcards from South Africa documenting the quirks and eccentricities of South Africa’s peoples.

About the author 

Nick Vassilev

Nick blogs about cleaning. He is a cleaning expert with more than 25 years of experience. He is also an NCCA-certified carpet cleaner. Founder and CEO of Anyclean.