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By Thami Kwazi

Lifestyle Print Editor

Minister of hats: The history behind Minister of Police Bheki Cele’s hats

Minister of Police, Bheki Cele's iconic wide-brimmed hats have quite the tale around their existence.

Once upon a time in the sunny lands of South Africa, there lived a man named Bheki Cele.

Now, Bheki wasn’t just any man; he was the Minister of Police, a man of authority, power, and impeccable taste in headwear.

You see, Minister Cele had a fondness for the finer things in life, particularly hats.

But not just any hat would do for him. No, he had a penchant for the extravagant, the luxurious, the kind of headgear that would make even the King of England raise an eyebrow in admiration.

Bheki Cele. Picture The Citizen

In all seriousness, South Africans are curious about the hats that the Minister wears as they are the key part of his fashion ensemble, so much so that he could be dubbed the Minister of Hats.

Cele’s various choices of headpiece, sometimes reminiscent of a cowboy hat, have accompanied him throughout his tenure as Minister of Police.

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What is the significance of Bheki Cele’s hats?

However, the significance of hats in Mzansi extends beyond mere fashion.

For many, in the present day, it symbolises authority, strength, and resilience – attributes deemed essential in the fight against crime in a country grappling with high rates of violence and criminal activity.

In African culture, wearing a hat is respectful – the only problem arises when it’s worn indoors.

A man is expected to take off his hat as soon as he enters a sheltered area, or when speaking to a female, which the minister hasn’t done since 2013.

What are these hats called?

Cele, typically wears a Dobbs hat, a range of hats from the exclusive fashion brand ranges from wide-brimmed hats to the popular fedora hat, Panama straw hat, and the poor boy hat – all different styles for varying occasions.

Established in 1908 Dobbs is an American brand that started in New York, on the famously known Fifth Avenue, to a company that was originally called Hat Corp, which later changed to Dobbs.

A popular feature of the highly trendy 1950s Sophiatown era, where musicians, artists, and rich criminals (gangsters) could be seen wearing the hats, in South Africa they became a symbol of style, freedom, and rebellion against a regime that restricted movement and rights. Clothing was a symbol of unrestricted self-expression amongst people of colour.

Wearing your Sunday best all the time was a symbol of freedom during the restrictive apartheid regime, where black and coloured people felt they could only express their freedom through their clothing.

If you could afford an original Dobbs hat, you were perceived as having reached the upper echelons of society as they were expensive and good quality.

Although the hats only cost from R650 – R2 495.00 this still applies today.

The costlier Dobbs hats are made of wool, fur, felt, and other more expensive fabrics.

While straw hats in the range are weaved in Ecuador and made of Milan and Panama straw.

The caps or poor boy hats are made with materials like felt.

Cele isn’t the only politician who has worn these popular hats. American Civil rights activists Martin Luther King JR, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower also wore them.

The look does give an energy of prestige to the wearer.

Younger Mzansi celebrities, fashion influencer Material Dondada and The Wife actor Abdul Khoza are also embracing the brand as it’s seen as ‘ukhotini’ (stylish threads) and part of the Nkabi (Zulu assassin) fashion trend.

A fashion sub-culture that involves wearing classic clothing circa 1950’s and combining it with contemporary threads.

Why does the Minister wear the hats so much?

According to a 2015 report by News24, Cele said he grew to like the hats when somebody had told him he looked good in the headgear and thus he’s been wearing them ever since.

A comrade had commented on the tsotsi-like image the hats sometimes portray to which he responded: “I said no, that is part of the ANC history. It has never been anti-struggle. Actually, it was part of the fashion struggle and the ANC signature… you look at those pictures (from the 1950s) all those guys have hats.”

Bheki Cele, Image Citizen
Bheki Cele. Picture: The Citizen

In Mzansi fashion circles hats are particularly popular in the Durban market, as Durban has warmer weather and there’s a need for shaded accessories that still look classic, and stylish but are useful.

Don’t be misled and assume the hats are outdated, they are still current, with young men wearing fedora hats to important occasions and highlighted events like the Durban July, one of the most popular horse racing events on the South African horse-racing and fashion calendar.

Visually, Cele is distinguished by his hats, but those who’ve worked with him have commented that when it comes to fashion, they regard him as an old icon.

While his hats are a matter of personal preference, their significance lies in the message they convey to the nation, whether seen as either a symbol of strength or a subject of contention.

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