The quest to get Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma elected as the next chairperson of the AU Commission has become by far the biggest foreign policy goal of the Zuma administration, a preoccupation verging on an obsession, some bemused diplomats stationed in Pretoria believe.

That is evident again this week in the preparations for SA’s hosting of the first Global African Diaspora Summit in Sandton today. Dlamini Zuma has been given a role in the proceedings beyond what one would expect from the incumbent of her present portfolio. Clearly the government is using the summit as a vehicle for some last-ditch lobbying for her before the AU summit in Lilongwe, Malawi, in July when continental leaders will try once again to choose the top bureaucrat for Africa.

At their last summit in Addis Ababa in January, neither Dlamini Zuma nor the incumbent, Jean Ping of Gabon, could muster the necessary two-thirds of the votes necessary to secure the job. Since then a committee of eight presidents tasked by the Addis Ababa summit to resolve the impasse, has met twice but failed to do so.

SA and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has officially endorsed Dlamini Zuma as its candidate, have been arguing that the chair of the AU Commission should rotate through Africa’s five regions and it is now the turn of the southern region, which has not occupied the chair before.

Ping’s backers have been countering with another unwritten principle, that none of Africa’s major powers should occupy the top job in the AU – just as none of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council should compete for the UN Secretary-Generalship.

Officials say that a compromise was proposed in the committee of eight, which would satisfy both unwritten principles, that the job should go to an SADC citizen, but not a South African.

SA officials have suggested that the problem is that the SADC had no other suitable candidate. However a veteran diplomat of another SADC country said this week it is now SA which is insisting on Dlamini Zuma while the rest of the SADC is “lukewarm”.

The veteran said he feared that SA was heading for another humiliating defeat in Lilongwe. But he also said SA’s very vigorous – some say aggressive – diplomacy since Addis Ababa, might yet succeed in securing the job for Dlamini Zuma.

There was apparent evidence for that this week when visiting Nigerian Vice- President Mohammed Namadi Sambo said at a joint press conference with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe after they had met in Cape Town that it was “totally wrong and untrue” that Nigeria had been leading a campaign against Dlamini Zuma.

He added that his government would support SA “not only for a position in the AU, but even for a position in the United Nations”.

It had been widely assumed that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had indeed been strongly behind Ping. If so Zuma, Motlanthe and company have evidently worked on him and changed his mind. Or perhaps Sambo is just promising support that Jonathan might not deliver in Lilongwe where the ballot will be secret? After all, what else could Sambo have said in answer to a journalist’s direct question when he was standing next to his host?

However there are also signs that Kenya, another big player that opposed Dlamini Zuma’s election in January, might be switching. Kenyan officials have always said they backed Ping because his deputy Erastus Mwencha, is a Kenyan and Nairobi regarded them as a “ticket”.

The officials said even before the vote in January, though, that Kenya was open to a deal that kept their man in his job but that SA didn’t seem ready to negotiate. Maybe that is now changing and maybe that and other shifts will produce a favourable outcome in Lilongwe.

But this hardball diplomacy comes at a price. Gabon’s Foreign Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet issued an angry statement recently in which he accused SA and SADC of undermining the efforts of the committee of eight to resolve the impasse through negotiations, by intensifying their campaign for Dlamini Zuma.

He said Gabon had tried to consult SA on this point, had sent a delegation of the ruling Parti Democratique Gabonais to the ANC, and he himself had gone to see Zuma.

“Regrettably, all these efforts have met with the intransigence of South Africa,” so Gabon was declaring its “unconditional support” for Ping’s candidacy. Evidently Dlamini Zuma expressed similar sentiments about Ping and Gabon this week.

Reflecting the bitterness of such exchanges, the veteran SADC diplomat expressed the fear that “even if South Africa wins this battle, it will lose the war. Dlamini Zuma will take over a deeply-divided continent”.

What is driving SA’s preoccupation? Are the rumours true that Zuma wants his ex-wife out of the picture before Mangaung because she will be a counterweight to his re-election bid?