AS NATIONALIST thought has tightened its grip on South African debate, so it has become increasingly politically correct, certainly en vogue, to qualify ideas, principles and values with the word "African".

One of the biggest culprits is South African Airways (SAA). Rated the best airline on the continent 10 years in a row, it has placed the phrase "a decade of African excellence" at the heart of its advertising, claiming it is striving to "bring African excellence to the world".

Advertising is infamous for nonsense but the idea of African excellence is worthy of particular scrutiny for two reasons: first, the briefest interrogation of the concept reveals it to be nonsensical; second, it is indicative of a more general attempt to free abstract ideas from their formal moorings by suggesting their African manifestation is magically superior.

What is the difference between excellence and "African excellence"? If the pursuit of excellence is the endeavour to be the very best, what is the pursuit of "African excellence"?

If it is to be the very best in Africa, that has little to do with excellence because the benchmark is no longer the very best, but a set of random geographic parameters.

But SAA cannot claim even that. It says its goal to is to take "African excellence" to the world. In other words, it is suggesting the standard it has set is superior to whatever global measure the rest of the world uses. And it wants to elevate the world standard in line with its own.

Of course that idea is rendered impotent by the very nature of its award. SAA has not won the best airline in the world, only the best in Africa.

It is possible the criteria by which African airlines are measured are more stringent than those of any other airline award in the world but, without going into the details, common sense tells one otherwise. SAA is not a model of excellence but of incompetence. Were it not for the endless annual bail-outs it receives from the government, it would have long since have gone under. It is a bottomless pit of financial mismanagement. It no more embodies excellence than Eskom embodies long-term planning.

But let’s give SAA the benefit of the doubt. For the sake of argument let’s say all it means is that it is the best in Africa. That is a limited achievement but perhaps a more logical one. African airlines aim many of their products at those countries closest to them and so it makes a certain amount of sense to look at their performance within that particular area of the world. But why then coin the phrase "African excellence", as opposed to "the best in Africa"? The former implies those two words constitute a single, coherent value; the latter is merely a fact.

Excellence as an idea is well defined and clearly understood. Outside of the obvious reference to a physical location "African-ness" enjoys no cogency. It is an amorphous, all-meaning euphemism for something good — akin to magic. In fact, magic would be a more honest precursor. Because that is what one is saying when using the word "African" as a qualifier in this way — that there is something indefinable about this concept, something not bound by the rules of rationality or reason, something above and beyond the ideal, something "African". SAA embodies "magic excellence".

Why do the cultural gatekeepers of ideas like "African-ness" never define exactly what they mean? One can deduce only that "African" means "good magic", just as "Western" means "bad magic". Likewise, although endlessly maligned, the nature of these ostensibly evil Eurocentric ideals is never expressly defined. Nevertheless, to be proudly African is good, but to be proudly Western is bad.

Could it be that "African excellence" is an attempt to have the best of both worlds? To allude to the more clinical, meritocratic nature of Western democracies while safeguarding against the accusation that one is unpatriotic for aspiring to anything not born of Africa? To calibrate ourselves against the world and simultaneously have our own standards too, we have developed a hybrid language of pseudo values and ideas, as meaningless as they are heartening to the politically correct police.

And this sort of gobbledygook is everywhere.

A radio advertisement that described Johannesburg as a "world-class African city" was recently deemed to be misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority, though more on the basis of its content than its slogan. Much like SAA, it seamlessly merges a universal standard with a geographic qualifier. What on earth is a "world-class African city"? Is it world-class? Or is it African? Or is African, world-class? In which case the idea is redundant anyway.

You have to admire the audacity of these institutions. Never mind the desperate attempt to appease the political powers that be, even to feign excellence is outlandish given their actual track records. Johannesburg, like SAA, represents the very opposite — decay and decline. That too tells you something. "African-ness" might be an empty shell of a word but the real ideals, principles and values — ideas like "world-class" and "excellence" — are just as hollow. You get the sense that even if we had developed the language of excellence, it too would be no more than rhetoric.

Low self-esteem plays a big role in all of this. Africa must be returned to its rightful place in the world, we are told. The irony is that if it is all about pride, one of the most powerful ways of authentically generating self-worth is by measuring yourself against the very best and then achieving your goals. Why does SAA not adopt the phrase "world-class" instead of "African excellence"? Why does it not set its goals at the very highest standard, rather than satisfying itself with a set of more parochial accomplishments?

South Africa seems petrified of the word "excellence". If we spent half as much time actually trying to understand excellence, to encourage, promote and protect it, as we do playing word games, our institutions wouldn’t constantly have to reassure everyone that they are striving towards that end. Their records would speak for them.

Alas, it appears far more comforting to have a set of carefully constrained aspirations that aim no higher than what our neighbours have achieved. If that is "African excellence", it is a sorry idea indeed.