THE contest to lead the African Union (AU) is expected to go into a nail-biting finale this weekend, as the incumbent AU Commission chairman, Jean Ping from Gabon, contends with a challenge from SA's Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma's campaign, which has spanned six months since a stalemate in Addis Ababa in January, has received material support from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) - the bulk of Ms Dlamini-Zuma's support base. Sadc put together three lobby teams to canvass the continent for votes. Oil-rich Angola chipped in $176000 in April to finance Ms Dlamini-Zuma's campaign.

An official in Harare said yesterday he expected the race "to go the wire" and expressed optimism that their months of work would culminate in "a sweet victory" at the weekend.

"We have done our homework, we have put in the hard work and we don't expect to falter ," said the official, who confirmed that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe would cast his vote for the Sadc candidate.

But Trevor Maisiri, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, pointed out that victory for Ms Dlamini-Zuma was not clear cut. "It's going to be a tough call. The critical issue would be trying to find a balance between Anglophone and Francophone countries in the hierarchy of the AU commission," said Mr Maisiri.

Diplomatic sources in Harare and Johannesburg said yesterday that last-minute efforts were being made to predetermine the outcome of the race, with Ms Dlamini-Zuma supported to take up the AU post, and intimations that the vice-chair post be given to a Francophone nation - in order to strike a balance.

"It is a generally accepted idea that no one wants to have Anglophone countries ruling the roost in the AU, because the other side (Francophone countries) will feel that their interests will not be represented. So it is highly likely that a compromise will have to be reached this weekend," said a diplomatic source in Johannesburg. The current AU vice-chairperson is Erastus Mwencha of Kenya. The AU summit in Ethiopia will also elect a new vice-chair and commissioners.

Mr Maisiri conceded that the behind-the-scenes plan was noble and said: "If Ms Dlamini-Zuma is to take over, then there must be a willingness to release the vice-chairperson post to the Francophone countries. However, if that kind of deal is not struck beforehand, then Ms Dlamini-Zuma will face a hurdle, given Nigeria's opposition to her candidacy." Regional powerhouses Nigeria and Kenya back Mr Ping, cautious of supporting Ms Dlamini-Zuma, whose ascendancy to the AU post is seen as giving SA more clout in continental affairs.

Meanwhile, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane yesterday said Mr Ping had abused AU resources for "personal campaigns".

She concurred with Botswana's Foreign Minister Phandu Skelemani, who said Mr Ping's conduct violated the "provisions and spirit of the statutes of the AU commission". He also accused Mr Ping of sowing division in the organisation.