TENSION is ratcheting up as the election of the African Union Commission chairperson draws closer, with incumbent chairman Jean Ping criticised by southern African countries for a statement he issued accusing the South African media of trying to tarnish his image and derail his re-election campaign.

Mr Ping is to be challenged this weekend by South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the five-year position, after a contest between the two candidates for the same position ended in a stalemate in January.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma's campaign has received material support from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) - the bulk of her support base.

Speculation in weekend papers that Mr Ping would withdraw from the race prompted him to issue a statement on the AU website earlier this week refuting the claims.

South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Thursday in a radio interview that Mr Ping had abused AU resources, the organisation's website and its letterhead for "personal campaigns". She was speaking in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia, where the 19th AU Summit was under way.

Ms Nkoana-Mashabane concurred with Botswana's Foreign Minister Phandu Skelemani, who had raised the matter at the summit and said Mr Ping's conduct violated the "provisions and spirit of the statutes of the AU Commission".

He also accused Mr Ping of potentially sowing division in the organisation, adding that the statement amounted to a "direct attack" on South Africa.

"In this regard, the conduct by the chairperson of the AU, namely abuse of AU resources, attack on and divulging information of a member state is unprecedented, and can bring disrepute to the integrity of the AU," Mr Skelemani said. "This therefore calls for an apology on his part, and retraction of the statement through the same medium used."

Ms Nkoana-Mashabane also moved to dispel "myths" that South Africa was party to a "gentlemen's agreement" taken by the five large African countries - Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria and Libya - that they would not hold leadership positions in the AU.

"That agreement does not exist. If it did, countries like Nigeria would not have had an opportunity to go in," she said. Nigeria held the position for three years, for an "interim" term.

Ms Nkoana-Mashabane said that "to prove the humility of South Africa, we have been a free nation for the past 18 years, we have not contested for any of the positions here".

She said when smaller states from the southern African region had tried to secure the position, they were rejected because they were viewed as "small" and "not too strong". Now that Sadc agreed on a candidate, however, it was time to take the helm.

"We are running a very clear and political campaign. We have never gone personal and we have refused to jump into any kind of temptations and provocations, and focused on the political and economic vision of this premier organisation," she said.

Some observers had pointed out that the upcoming election could yield a similar result to the January poll, when neither Mr Ping nor Ms Dlamini-Zuma had garnered the required two-thirds majority.

Ms Nkoana-Mashabane said two more African countries had endured military coups since the failed AU election in January, and that she had "watched in horror" as a 15th-century mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, was recently "reduced to rubble" by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. It was therefore imperative for the AU to act decisively and finalise its leadership, she said.

"We need leadership and we need it now.. Do we have time to dither? No. We said we will come and finalise this responsibility. The time is here and now."

Lobbying will take place until the final hour, and the election will take place this weekend when heads of state are expected to arrive at the AU summit. President Jacob Zuma was to travel to the summit on Friday.

An official in Harare said on Thursday 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 Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe would cast his vote for Ms Dlamini-Zuma.

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," Mr Maisiri said.

With Ray Ndlovu

marriann@bdfm.co.za