Nokwanele Bhalizulu speaks to ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa during the walkabout in Qunu. Picture:Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency
The posters said it all. The bridge across the Orange River, long known as the JBM Hertzog Bridge, may as well have been the Cyril Ramaphosa Bridge.

Bronze plaques commemorate the erection of the bridge in 1937, but there was just a blank spot on the Free State side.

There were no fewer than five posters for today’s 106th ANC birthday celebration in East London, 358km to the south - all bearing Ramaphosa’s smiling face.

Interestingly, on the Eastern Cape bank of the river there were no posters for those heading north, but the original plaques were still there.

Were the posters a statement only for delegates heading toward the new president’s first-ever January 8, now being held on the nearest Saturday to the date of the party’s founding?

By Jamestown, it looked like the entire bash was a chimera, with not a single poster. By Queenstown, the local branch organisers had done their work and the main road through it was festooned with posters. The juxtaposition for the man, decried as the agent of white minority capital, was telling.

Ramaphosa found himself on several lamp poles under a poster for a tile manufacturer. The pay-off line above was big savings, more style. He also shared space with gummed hand bills offering help for matric rewrites.

It was very different from Joburg, where his predecessor would inadvertently share wall space under motorway bridges in the CBD for penis enlargements and soothsayers offering to return lost loves.

By Cathcart, also the main route to Hogsback, which allegedly inspired JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings - the epic fantasy trilogy where good ultimately triumphs over evil - there were only three posters on the main route through the entire town.

By Stutterheim, Teutonic efficiency in this little ersatz Bavaria ensured the main route was emblazoned with posters of the newly minted ANC president, with 35 in total going in and out of town.

The posters each had their own lamp pole, although one subversive appeared to have got his own back by hanging one of the 35 upside down.

By the time you got to East London, there was only one show in town. The East London City Hall, all Victorian red and white, stuck out of a sea of yellow, black and green below, joined by a colonial soldier sitting atop his horse, shielding his eyes as he peered to the heavens for all eternity.

Off to the side, black consciousness icon Steve Biko looked on impassively.

Down by the seafront, the ANC national executive committee was in conclave, meeting for the first time since its election a month ago at Nasrec, south of Joburg.

The media, local and national, had been feverishly speculating that this would be the end of Jacob Zuma following the precedent he himself created with his predecessor Thabo Mbeki in the months that followed Zuma’s ascent at Polokwane in 2007.

There is an immense amount at stake now, as at Nasrec.

The president of the country is no longer president of his party. His enemies are legion, his indiscretions legendary and his alleged wrongdoing Herculean.

If he is recalled without any promise for his future, his only guarantee will be a legal tsunami, financial ruin and jail - probably in that order. But, as at Nasrec, Ramaphosa does not have it all his own way.

The weather cock of prevailing sentiment in the shape of Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, once Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s most fervent and vocal supporter in the run-up to the bruising electoral battle late last year, is banging the drum with the same messianic zeal - but this time for Ramaphosa.

He’s not the only one. Allegiances have shifted, old loyalties have been binned.

Ramaphosa, though, isn’t having it all his own way. The special NEC meeting refuses to discuss anything but the January 8 statement, which he will present as the party’s president today.

It’s a tiny battle in a war of a million little ones for the soul and control of the party. Zuma, who by now is in Durban on matters of state hosting Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, will live on - at least until next week when the NEC meets for its first proper, ordinary, meeting.

Then the issue of two centres of power - and his recall - will be raised, probably from the floor, forcing the 86 members to formally discuss it.

For Ramaphosa, there is no time to lose. The caravan keeps moving on. He and the other members of the Top 6 are out meeting the faithful and pressing the flesh, smiling for photo ops, giving sound bites to the television cameras - but first they have to go to Qunu, the resting place of the party and the nation’s spiritual father, Nelson Mandela.

The ANC started this process in Joburg with a visit to colleague and comrade Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s lifelong friend, going to the grave, paying their respects to the ancestors.

From there it was on to KwaZulu-Natal last weekend, to the graves of John Langalibalele Dube, Josiah Tshangana Gumede and Pixley ka Isaka Seme.

As Ramaphosa will later explain to the 300-odd villagers all clad in yellow T-shirts that have now become the embodiment of the street posters, the party is reconnecting with its leaders, “shaking the bones of our forebears so their spirits and their flesh can rejuvenate the ANC to what it was”.

Except in Mandela’s case this will only happen on February 11 - coincidentally, the anniversary of his release in 1991 from Victor Verster prison in Paarl.

Earlier that day, as the assembled press corps had sweltered outside the gates of Mandela’s homestead - where his remains are interred, while the Top 6 met with the Mandela family to pay their respects and to go to the grave.

They weren’t allowed to even get close - because of cultural reasons, explained Madiba’s scion Mandla Mandela.

Addressing an impromptu press conference while towering over ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, inscrutable behind his impenetrable sunglasses, Mandela cited chapter and verse of traditional rites, going into detail about what would have to be done before any could visit, down to the ox that would have to be slaughtered - all of which would take time, none of which would be any time soon, hence the choice of February 11.

Once again it felt like another seismic shift in the tectonic plates, for there had been no mention of cultural issues in KwaZulu-Natal.

One Xhosa colleague laughed derisively: “It’s just an excuse. The ancestors understand if people need to meet them without the proper procedures. You just tell them you’ll be back later to make the proper amends - the simple truth is that the family didn’t want to give CR the photo opportunity.”

Down at the Qunu community hall, Ramaphosa was introduced to the crowd. Clad in his usual business suit, with the green and gold golf shirt beneath, he wasn’t the man of the people, but he was nowhere near as aloof as his detractors have been claiming.

Instead, he looked presidential.

Speaking a mix of isiXhosa, isiZulu and English, he joked, had some fun at new national chairperson Gwede Mantashe’s expense and then painted a picture of a new ANC that would be responsive to the people under his hand.

He promised a leadership that would be united, that the people could trust and support - and he produced one of the best spin jobs yet on what is a still very fractured and fractious team. “This leadership provides a combination of different views and thought processes, each one brings a different strength,” he said, referring to the Top 6.

But he pleaded with them all to work together, to speak as one, and to stop the internecine battles that have almost brought the organisation to its knees.

The party’s leaders, he said, were on a pilgrimage to celebrate its history, for the ANC was not a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys, mafikizolo, but an organisation with a proud and rich heritage.

“We want to go back to our roots, to reconnect with our people. We are on this journey. The Eastern Cape is a place of legends and Qunu is the epicentre because here lies Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

“We must deal with corruption. Nelson Mandela would have wanted us to rid the ANC of corruption and make the ANC attractive to the people once again.”

As he sat down to applause, ANC provincial chairperson Oscar Mabuyane stood up to thank him.

“You have heard him, now go the rally on Saturday. The Buffalo will be speaking in Buffalo City.”

Afterwards, Ramaphosa posed for selfies, his bemused protection detail indulging him, as people thronged about his official convoy, a far cry from the self-styled man of the people - his predecessor with his battalion-sized praetorian guard of heavily armed police in camouflage, motorcycle outriders and hard-faced men in suits.

Earlier in the week, Ramaphosa had gone for a jog down to the beachfront, a gift for the social media mavens and their memes: pigeon-toed in Ronald McDonald-esque socks and takkies so vintage they were almost retro.

The cars moved off, gently through the throngs, with nary a blue light nor an angry siren to the next appointment.

Ramaphosa, it seemed, had tied the scores - for now.