JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's white-dominated main opposition party looks set to elect its first ever black leader this weekend, opening a new chapter in its uphill struggle to challenge the ruling African National Congress.
On Sunday, all eyes will be on Mmusi Maimane, 34, the Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary leader, as he battles for the control of the predominantly white party following the departure of Helen Zille as leader.
At the heart of the contest is the task of increasing the party's support among the black majority that often regards the DA with suspicion 21 years after the end of apartheid white-minority rule.
For many observers, Maimane, who only joined the party in 2009, is a shoo-in to lead DA.
"It's no doubt that Maimane will win," political analyst Prince Mashele told AFP.
"But people are not just excited about the prospect of a black leader, they want policy change.
"What matters is the actual transformation of the party."
The election is poised to be a two-man race between Maimane and senior DA party leader Wilmot James, 61, when 1,425 delegates cast their votes Sunday at the party's annual conference in the southern city of Port Elizabeth.
The DA boosted its share of the vote from 16.6 per cent in 2009 to 22.2 per cent in the 2014 elections, but it struggles to present itself as a credible alternative to the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Maimane has long been seen as Zille's protege, and several regional DA bodies and senior figures have endorsed him.
Raised in Soweto, the heartland of anti-apartheid resistance, he broke away from his family's ANC roots to join the Democratic Alliance.
Since then he has been parachuted into high-profile jobs with Zille's backing.
In May 2014, he became the party's leader in parliament after defeating long-serving members.
His year in parliament has seen him widely praised for his effective sparring with President Jacob Zuma and ANC lawmakers.