Richard Poplak: The Battle of the Berets

A tale of two French hats.

The first is a red beret that debuted last year as the primary piece of ordnance in the fledgling Economic Freedom Fighters' (EFF) prêt-à-porter arsenal. Perched on the head of the party's leader, one-time ANC Youth League MC Julius Sello Malema, it became the must-have fashion item of 2013, a statement reminding the economically enfranchised that nationalisation of the mines - to say nothing of banks, Tasha's franchises and BMW dealerships - was only a few pieces of branded apparel away.

The beret linked the EFF to the sort of revolutionaries university kids post up in their dorm rooms before heading out for a night of shot-gunning beers and falling accidentally pregnant: Che Guevara; the Black Panthers; the Provisional Irish Republican Army; the ETA - those bomb-happy Basque Country independence fighters who wore their berets over hoods, just to keep shit fresh.

The second French hat is a red beret that made its inaugural appearance on the political runway a day ago, courtesy of the African National Congress, an ancient South African liberation movement-cum-political party that most of the world has long associated with three colours, none of which are red. Yesterday in Mpumalanga, the berets were worn in consort with yellow Zuma T-shirts and were meant, according to the wearers, "to confuse the enemy" - the enemy presumably being the panelists on Project Runway: Nelspruit.

ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza, who tends towards the sloppy black suits and dad windbreakers of his caste, was unperturbed by this new development. There would be no "brand confusion", he stated, because the South Africa Communist Party and Cosatu, stalwart members of the ANC alliance, have long maintained red berets as part of their wardrobes. In fact, Khoza implied, the EFF had stolen the idea from them.

This outraged the EFF's commissar for political education, policy and research (mull over that title for just one Jesus-loving second) Floyd Shivambu, who stated in the youth-loving EFF's indigenous language, isiFacebook, "Those who claim SACP started with Red berets must tell us where and when? I worked for SACP and there wasn't a slightest trait of red berets. But as sages say: 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' We are dealing with zANC and zSACP copycats who printed red berets because they wish they were EFF."

Sages do say that, among other things. And so we turn for a moment to the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who understood a thing or two about the intersection of politics and fashion. In Benjamin's conception, the aestheticisation of politics was one of fascism's great skillsets (among a few others); in his classic essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin noted that, "All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war." We get a sense of his meaning when we glance at a sea of people wearing red berets and red T-shirts, their individuality subsumed by the imperatives of the movement - transformed into images, these are no longer people with inner lives and local needs, but units of exchange in a battle for power.

Consider the words of EFF Grandmaster Andile Mngxitama, who stated, when he was asked about his party's empty bank account, "We are replacing money with people".

The essential element in the demagogue's handbook? Cool shit to wear. And the EFF's berets have been, by almost any measure, a massively successful campaign tool. They speak to a history of revolution without getting bogged down in specifics; they imply solidarity of purpose, even when purposeless power is the only possible end-game in the context of a gangster-state like South Africa.

I think that Benjamin - had he not killed himself in despair on the eve of World War II - would have been fascinated by these warring berets. Would he have worked them over in his hands, and mused once again on the words of the Futurist nutcase Marinetti, who wrote so admiringly of the Ethiopian colonial war:

For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as antiaesthetic…. Accordingly we state:…War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others…. Poets and artists of Futurism! … remember these principles of the aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illuminated by them.

By no means am I suggesting that the EFF are fascists, they're merely populists. But I am suggesting that they share a certain maniyre - beret-wearer-speak for "style" - with some ideologically compromised ex-regimes. (I am saying, and Andile Mngxitama has written as much, that certain members of the EFF's brain trust would not be adverse to the odd smoke spiral livening up the South African landscape, and who can blame them?)

But we must ask where that leaves the ANC, who in the words of Magdalene Moonsamy, a vocal EFF member, are now exposed as "lack[ing] of innovation & in the absence of ideas/dictatorial quashing thereof the closest option is theft. Steal taxes/berets/ideas, etc."

Benjamin may have been doubly revolted by the Battle of the Berets, mostly because South Africa doesn't mechanically reproduce anything anymore - everything we use and wear is made somewhere else. The only thing we produce is images; the only things we create are brands. And the berets - with their bargain basement felt, tacky plastic brims and machine whelped logos - perfectly symbolise many of our political class's shortcomings, including the following: the ruling party of this country is so ideologically bankrupt that they'll endorse the aping of clothing in order to maintain their percentage at the polls.

Politics in the Age of Idiocy aren't any stupider and uglier in South Africa than they are elsewhere in the world. But they are stupid and ugly in ways that speak to our own specific idiocies and unsightliness. And donning the proverbial beret - currently the reigning meme in Election 2014 - doesn't make us look any smarter, or any cuter. In fact, the more they are reproduced, the more they become part of our political language, the more they transform into something of a dunce cap.

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.