IN OUR search for answers to the troubling leadership questions of our time, we often cast a glance at the past, hoping for an inspiration from the giants that have long departed. Under the gloomy leadership of President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress (ANC), it has become common practice to invoke the names of leaders such as Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.

There are many who believe our problems are down to the absence of leaders such as Robert Sobukwe or Steve Biko — or their replicas — today. It is not only the ANC that is entranced by the idealism of the past, but a significant portion of SA’s society also yearns for a mythical golden age, when leaders were truly leaders and unsullied by human fallibility. For the ANC, this mythology accords with its own liberation narrative and bolsters its image as the only party that can breed leaders for the country.

The danger of fixating on the mythical golden age is that it breeds inertia. It makes us feel powerless in comparison with what must have been the unflagging spirit of the departed heroes. We should recognise that theirs was a human effort that we are also capable of emulating. The fact that we feel perplexed at the moment is not a sign that we do not have what it takes to change our political and social conditions and play a meaningful part in shaping a different but better future for the next generation.

Each generation has its own challenges. It must carry its own burdens and negotiate its own treacherous waters into the future.

Similarly, every leader emerging from within a generation has its mission intricately bound up with the challenges of that particular generation.

Such a leader might, in the process of executing his or her task, leave an echo that reverberates into the future. As much as present leaders cannot transport themselves back into the past, so are past leaders limited in their influence over the present and the future circumstances.

To wish that we had the leaders of yesterday leading us today is missing an important point: that there are no leaders more attuned and better suited to deal with our realities than those we can find among the living today. Wisdom is not restricted to the dead. It is from within our generation that capable leaders who can take the country forward, are to be found.

Liberation movement heroes operated in conditions that are vastly different from those we are confronted with today. They had a clearly defined enemy that was expressed in the elaborate and diabolic system of apartheid. They did not have to fix things, but bring them to destruction. What we face today are complex challenges of rethinking what it means to be a new nation, to coexist healthily as different races and to fix governance.

Consider, for example, two cases that give us some clues to the frail mettle of the past generation when tested against today’s reality. There was recently a debate between Kay Sexwale — Tokyo Sexwale’s niece — and the Rivonia trialists, triggered by an open letter penned by the former on the growing corruption in the ruling party.

The responses of the two veterans, Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg, betrayed how out of touch with reality the old stalwarts of the liberation movement are. They denied the gravity of the morbid state of the ruling party and argued that the ANC must not be judged based on the performance of its leaders. This comes from highly esteemed men, who sacrificed everything for the cause of freedom.

However weighty their struggle pedigree, they find the present challenges too overwhelming to grasp. A worse case is that of Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, whose intellect and courage was recognised by his peers during the difficult times of the liberation struggle. He also spent time on Robben Island for his convictions. Today, he has allowed himself to be reduced to a spin doctor at the service of a chaotic leadership that is dragging South Africa through the mud. The remaining strength of his twilight years is wasted in defence of a naked president.

It is possible, too, that were leaders such as Tambo and Biko still active today, they would not necessarily create miracles, but could well become a part of the problem. It is easier to glorify past heroes and overlook their weaknesses as if they were saints than it is to act heroically in spite of our human limitations today.

Africa has plenty of examples of liberation heroes who transformed overnight into enemies of progress. While the values embodied by our freedom fighters are timeless and transcend race and nationality, there is nothing extraordinary about them that the current generation cannot express in even greater measure. The seed of leadership is planted in every generation and it is up to each of us to nurture it.

• Qobo is affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria.