Local commentary on the continental impasse over the election of a chairperson of the AU Commission has almost entirely focused on what it would mean for SA if its candidate were again defeated next week.

It has been suggested that it would be unbearably humiliating for SA if Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma failed once again to unseat the incumbent, Jean Ping of Gabon, at the AU summit in Addis Ababa on July 16.

Gabonese no doubt feel the converse.

But perhaps it is time for SA to start focusing instead on the damage another inconclusive election would do to the AU’s already shaky reputation.

Dlamini Zuma failed in her first challenge to Ping in the last AU summit in January when neither of them could muster the necessary two-thirds majority of the leaders of the AU’s 54 member states.

Ping did not fall on his sword as SA had hoped. The summit extended Ping’s term by six months while a special committee of eight presidents, including President Jacob Zuma and Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba, tried to find a political solution before the next summit.

They have so far failed to do so, though they will meet again in Addis Ababa just before the election to try again. The Sunday Times reported that Ping had visited SA on Friday, at the SA government’s invitation, and was ready to retire from the chair if he were given another suitable position.

But a senior official of an African country which is supporting Ping’s candidacy said Ping had in the end not visited SA and so the deal was off.

SA – and the rest of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which is backing Dlamini Zuma – need Ping to pull out of the race. Likewise Gabon and Ping’s other backers, including powerful Nigeria and Kenya, want her to pull out.

That’s because both sides know it is likely neither candidate will win the necessary two thirds of the vote if it comes down to another poll next week.

Five SADC ministerial teams have been criss-crossing the continent for months in an intensive lobbying campaign for Dlamini Zuma. Yet after comparing notes at a meeting in Pretoria last week they were forced to conclude that she still didn’t have the required number of assured votes.

Officials said then that they were counting on the special AU presidential committee to come up with a compromise solution at its last meeting just before the election.

The SADC ministers also concluded that the AU could not afford another inconclusive election, “to have another extension of an extension” of Ping’s tenure until the next AU summit next January, as one SA official put it.

That would do great damage to the legitimacy of the AU.

The SA government believes the duty to rescue the AU’s legitimacy rests entirely with Ping’s side, since Pretoria contends he essentially lost his mandate at the last election and should retire.

So SA has so far refused to entertain proposed compromises such as replacing Dlamini Zuma with a candidate from a smaller SADC country, which would meet the objections to her of many of Ping’s backers, including Nigeria and Kenya, that the bigger African nations should not occupy the chair of the AU Commission.

SA counters that what the AU Commission –and the continent – needs right now is precisely the sort of heft and efficiency which only a competent country and candidate like SA and Dlamini Zuma would bring to the job.

Yet Pretoria needs to be aware that insisting on her candidacy is now beginning to defeat its very own aim by paralysing the AU Commission rather than reviving it.

There has always been an obvious solution to the problem: to change the voting rules so that the chairperson may be elected with a simple majority.

That idea was evidently shot down by both sides in the special presidential committee because both feared defeat in such a poll.

For the sake of the AU’s faltering credibility, though, Zuma should try to persuade the presidential committee to agree on that change at its last meeting before next week’s election.

If they cannot agree, and Ping won’t withdraw, Zuma should pull Dlamini Zuma out of the race. She would likely be a better AU Commission chairperson than Ping. But a larger peril than inefficiency now confronts the AU and that is a massive failure of its credibility.

Those who profess to care most about the organisation must make the toughest choices.