THE race for the African Union (AU) Commission top job kicks into top gear this week as an AU summit starts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, today, with Pretoria expressing optimism over Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's chances of securing the position.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma is once again vying for the position, amid speculation that incumbent Jean Ping may withdraw from the race.

Pretoria has been lobbying hard to secure the spot after a failed bid in January. If elected, Ms Dlamini-Zuma would be the first woman to head the AU administration.

President Jacob Zuma's international relations adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, yesterday said Pretoria would "fight to the bitter end".

"The reason we are fighting it is there are principles.... One, Sadc (the Southern African Development Community) has never had the opportunity to do this. Two, we need the institution to have the capacity to deal with the challenges of the continent and we believe she does have the capacity," she said.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma's 10-year experience as South Africa's foreign minister, her role in the formation of the AU, and her international "network" would make her the perfect candidate for the job, Ms Zulu said.

"The AU cannot operate in isolation; it needs other partners. And we work closely with the European Union (EU). We've got agreements with the EU and those people have got complete confidence in her (Ms Dlamini-Zuma) being able to take the institution forward."

Sadc countries have reaffirmed their commitment to Ms Dlamini-Zuma, while the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) continues to support Mr Ping. The AU has 54 members, with 15 belonging to the Sadc region and 15 to Ecowas.

Relations between South Africa and Nigeria, a dominant member of Ecowas, have been strained recently.

Dianna Games, CE of Africa At Work, a consultancy on African business, said Nigeria had cited an agreement - which it believed South Africa was party to - that none of the five large African states would stand for "big AU positions", hence its support for Mr Ping.

The big five are South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Libya and Algeria.

Ms Games said that with South Africa pushing Ms Dlamini-Zuma for AU chairwoman, it was unclear where Pretoria stood on this agreement, which was problematic for ties between the two countries .

Kenya was also expected to support Mr Ping after it called on Ms Dlamini-Zuma to give her support to the incumbent in May. It could influence countries in east Africa and the Horn of Africa to follow suit.

During the lobbying process this time, Pretoria is leaving nothing to chance.

"We improved our lobbying from the time we did it first time around. We looked at where we had weaknesses. There are countries we didn't go to, some countries we took it for granted that we had their support . only to find that we didn't," Ms Zulu said.

"And if we lose, yes, it will knock us, but it's not such a knock as if South Africa is going to simply collapse because we didn't make it. But we (are) not working for failure."

Weekend reports cited senior diplomatic sources as saying Mr Ping was in South Africa last week in order to broker a deal that would aid South Africa and Ms Dlamini-Zuma's bid, offering to withdraw provided he was guaranteed deployment elsewhere.

Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesman Nelson Kgwete could not confirm the report, saying he had received no communication on the matter - he said Mr Ping could have visited the country in his private capacity but his last official visit was in May.

He said South Africa was "optimistic" Ms Dlamini-Zuma would be given a chance to hold the top spot.

The AU Commission chairmanship election is due at the weekend, when the heads of state meet.