The beret is perhaps the most iconic of all sartorial symbols of resistance and revolution. Think Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s staring out from a graffiti mural; the combative Fidel Castro marching triumphantly into Havana; Burkinabe Thomas Sankara at the height of his youthful, liberating cameo in African politics; think the Black Panthers.
It has been a while since the signature round hat with the flat top, usually worn with the top sloping to the side, or perched on the wearer’s head like a crown, has been in circulation. But in recent months, the beret has been dusted from history, in Africa at least, and marched on outside, into the streets, out into the inferno of struggle.
It first made waves when South African politician Julius Malema, a fiery man cut in the cloth of the old guard, stormed into the scene wearing the red beret.
“We are inspired by these revolutionaries,” Malema was quoted in the South African Sunday Times newspaper. “We’re inspired by Thomas Sankara (the Burkina Faso leader and Pan-Africanist who was assassinated in 1987) who used to wear a beret as well.”
Malema’s political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has incorporated the red beret as part of its uniform.
In the immediate neighbourhood, Ugandan music star and politician Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, is credited with the revival of the red beret in the region. Kyagulanyi, 36, has received massive acreage of media space as he spars with President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
In nearly every political rally, Wine wore the iconic red beret and soon his followers, mostly disgruntled youth, began sporting the cap in solidarity with Wine, the Kyadondo East Member of Parliament.
After Wine’s sensational trial on charges of illegal possession of firearms and treason, and subsequent incarceration, the hat became a rallying point in Uganda and elsewhere. His supporters wore the red beret during a demonstration in Nairobi demanding the politician’s release, and when Kyagulanyi visited Kenya for a solidarity rally in Kibera, Nairobi, in October, the hat sprouted like toadstools.
During the rally, Kyagulanyi was joined by his Kenyan counterpart, activist Boniface Mwangi, who wore a green beret to Bobi Wine’s red.
Asked about the beret, Mr Mwangi said: “Whenever I wear a beret, it gives me a feeling of comradeship; that I am in a struggle bigger than me, a battle previously waged by people like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Thomas Sankara.
In modern times, it gives you identity. For instance in South Africa, anyone wearing a red beret is easily recognised as supporting Julius Malema and his political movement, same as people allied to Uganda’s Robert Kyagulanyi who easily show their allegiance through their berets despite the fact that Mr Kyagulanyi does not have a political party.”
The beret as political statement traces its history back to the early 1800s, first in Spain when military leader Tomas Zumalacarregui donned a red beret during the Second Carlist War. And from there the beret spread across continental Europe and on to the Americas, becoming part of military attire.
In the 50s and 60s the world, especially developing countries, was in the grip of revolutionary fervour, from Central America to Eastern Asia to Africa. In Cuba, Fidel Castro was running roughshod over the armies of dictator Fulgencio Batista, toppling the capitalist leader in 1959.
Meanwhile, in the US, Black Americans, fed up with institutionalised racial discrimination, rose to demand justice.
Among the various organisations pushing for civil rights was the Black Panther party, whose members were known as the Black Panthers. The Panthers stood out not just for their firebrand stance of armed resistance, but also for their black leather jackets, mountainous Afros, and of course the black beret.
In its identities, the beret, usually in binary hues of red and black, and an occasional green (the colours are indistinct in interpretation), is the perfect collision, even coalition, of resistance, political statement and fashion. Never was this clearer than during the half-break at Super Bowl 50 in February 2016 when Beyoncé Knowles performed the song “Formation”, with her dancers wearing the black beret. It was an ode to the Black Lives Matter movement, and also in a way, a tribute to the Black Panthers.
Qui Qarre, a Kenyan poet and spoken word artist, wore her first beret when she was six years old. It was a gift from her father.
“It was more of a popularity thing, to stand out. I was a kid,” Qarre, who recently released her first poetry book, Tears of the Pen, told the Nation. The cover of her book bears her picture wearing a beret.
“The picture represents both vulnerability, chic, but mostly strength,” says the poet. “I didn’t know the history and significance of the (beret) hat until a few years ago. My poetry straddles all aspects of life: having spine, love, self-expression.”
In most major towns in Kenya, it has become common to spot a young man or woman wearing the beret, for fashion or consciousness.
Like all fashion trends, the sugar rush of renewal will surely subside but with the new crop of young leaders adopting the beret of caffeine and fire, it will be some time before the red beret vacates the scene.
History has a way of crawling out of the closet, demanding light.
- In recent times, the hat has been dusted from history, at least in Africa, and marched out into the streets and inferno of struggle.
- It first made waves when South African politician Julius Malema, a fiery man cut in the cloth of the old guard, stormed into the scene wearing the red beret.
- Ugandan music star and politician Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, is credited with the revival of the red beret in the region.