SOUTH Africa has made it through many uncertain times. FirstRand founder Paul Harris’s touching letter to an expatriate, widely circulated last month, observed that "there have always been people who think South Africa has five years left before we go over the cliff".

In the past, pragmatic voices have been heeded and the doom-mongers have been proved wrong. But concern has recently been prompted by the emergence of the grand fantasy or "great leap forward" in the political rhetoric of the African National Congress (ANC).

The original great leap forward was a programme of the Communist Party of China in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It sought to transform that society into an industrial powerhouse through forced collectivisation and the simultaneous development of the farming and industrial sectors. It resulted in economic and social devastation and the deaths of 20-million to 35-million people.

After 1994, South Africans grew accustomed to piecemeal improvements. But Jacob Zuma’s elevation to the ANC presidency coincided with the global economic slump. Frustration with incremental change deepened and a search for more emancipatory policies began. This was initially expressed in a renewed determination. A developmental state was proposed (even if ministers wanted investment without curtailing consumption and ducked hard decisions about the performance of public employees).

The New Growth Path was launched by Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel. This involved a more blurry vision of a "green" state that would run efficient agricultural support programmes, beneficiate minerals and create 250,000 jobs every year through strategic investment in energy, transport and communications infrastructure. Then the National Development Plan emerged as a symbol of the ANC’s longstanding commitment to the role of reason in human affairs. It returned repeatedly to the importance of building key skills and capabilities. Engineers, it noted, are essential for industrial policy, for infrastructure investment, and for the provision of water, sanitation, electricity, roads and houses.

Iraj Abedian, former special adviser to the minerals minister, optimistically but stubbornly advocated an "industrial revolution" from the enhanced beneficiation of mineral resources. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced huge infrastructure spending to sustain growth and employment. These determined optimists, however, are now being supplanted by fantasists.

The ANC Youth League has advocated nationalisation as a route to general wellbeing. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) apparently now concurs. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe proposes that the creation of an acronym, Brics, will itself generate wealth, prosperity and happiness. Cosatu intellectuals claim something called a "Lula moment" will help South Africa replicate Brazil’s recent equality and welfare gains — how, exactly, remains poorly specified.

Port Elizabeth’s The Herald newspaper reported recently that the city has only one registered professional engineer. Yet in areas around Port Elizabeth, there have been numerous recent violent protests from residents seeking public services. Across the country, a shortage of engineering and other hard skills is deepening dependency on expensive consultants, and bringing mismanagement by political appointees, declining quality control, crooked tenders, and decaying road, water and sewage systems. As the national temperature rises, the steady incremental gains promoted by the National Planning Commission appear to have few champions in the ANC leadership. The intellectual vacuum that surrounds Zuma could quickly fill with redemptive fantasies designed to keep some of the people on the government’s side. It is not impossible that FirstRand’s Harris is wrong. Maybe South Africa really isn’t going to make it this time.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.