Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma says she would like to make a "humble contribution to the African Union".
African Union leaders opened their biannual summit on Sunday to discuss the continent's hotspots as elections for the bloc's top job overshadowed the agenda.
South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is challenging the sitting chairperson of the commission, Gabon's Jean Ping, after neither won the required two-thirds of the vote at the last summit six months ago, leaving Ping in the post.
Both candidates have issued strongly worded public statements ahead of Sunday's vote.
Earlier this week, Ping dismissed South African media reports that he was quitting to allow Dlamini-Zuma to stand unopposed, prompting the Southern African Development Community to accuse him of abusing AU resources in his election bid.
Analysts say that by unwritten tradition, continental powerhouses do not run for the post – leaving smaller nations to take the job – and that South Africa's decision to override this rule has sparked bad feeling.
If no chairperson is selected this time around, Ping – who has held the post since 2008 – could legally be asked to stay on as leader until the next summit in January 2013.
Security issues are also a top priority at the gathering, with leaders focusing on instability in Mali, renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the ongoing crisis between Sudan and South Sudan.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir embraced each other as leaders filed into the summit room, following their first face-to-face talks late Saturday since border clashes in April and March.
The meeting is being held in the Ethiopian capital after Malawi's new president Joyce Banda refused to host Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes and genocide charges.
"I think we [South Africa] can make a contribution to the African Union as our pan-African organisation and this is really what we would like to do – to make our humble contribution to the African Union," Dlamini-Zuma said during an interview with eTV 360 on Saturday.
"No one person makes a contribution in an organisation."
When asked why she was running for the position, Dlamini-Zuma said she was a citizen of the African continent and had every right to run.
"I am also running because the region from which I come has decided to field me as a candidate for this position, a position that has not been held by the southern region for 49 years," she told the news channel.
Dlamini-Zuma said the election for the top spot should be a democratic one, despite divisions between member states.
"This should be a democratic election that should not really be based on anything besides the capacity and the merits of the two candidates," she said.
"The important thing is that there are two candidates that are standing. One has had a full mandate and of course, if you have had a full mandate and if you want to run for a second term, the people you have been serving will vote as they think they should."
There would not be divisions if people focused on what the candidates had to offer.
"Southern Africa has tried. This is the third time they are trying so I think this is why they feel strongly but the important thing is what kind of candidate have they fielded and this is what people should be looking at," she said.
Dalmini-Zuma said all AU members were equal and should be treated equally.
Asked what she would do if she was elected, Dlamini-Zuma said she would have to assess the situation first.
"... Like a doctor, you first diagnose and then you treat. I will have to take it from there," said Dlamini-Zuma.
Attendees at the summit meeting agreed on a call for the resignation of the military junta in Mali.
In addition, the summit saw progress on the conflict between Sudan and its year-old southern neighbour South Sudan.
Members also agreed on a common position on the conflict in the DRC, calling for new international peacekeepers to be deployed against the rebel militias in the east.
Mali has suffered double-pronged instability since March, when rebel soldiers overthrew the government in Bamako in a military coup. Islamist rebels in the north exploited the instability to declare themselves an autonomous state.
The formation of a national unity government in Mali was called for by African leaders to help improve the security crisis caused by rebels and armed groups in the north. The new government would be formed before the end of July.
"It is hoped that the formation of the government will mark the return of state authority to Mali," the AU's peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said.
The proliferation of armed groups has uprooted nearly 320 000 people, with many of them fleeing to neighbouring countries.
The armed groups constitute a "serious threat to regional and international peace and security," added Lamamra.
The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) demanded "the dissolution of the military junta" responsible for the coup and all "unacceptable interference from the junta" in the management of the transition to be quashed.
Individuals and sponsors responsible for impeding the transitional process in Mali will be hit with sanctions.
Mali and neighbouring countries are currently requesting that the UN Security Council support Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) forces combating armed groups and Islamist extremists in northern Mali.
Ecowas chairperson and Côte d'Ivoire President Alassane Dramane Ouattara briefed journalists near the end of the summit meeting, reaffirming the region's "uncompromising resolve" to return Mali to constitutional rule.
A national unity government in Mali would bring the whole country back under a single leadership and organise fair and transparent presidential elections by the end of the transitional period.
On the topic of DRC, 11 countries from eastern and central Africa called for new peacekeeping forces to be sent.
Protests outside the venue in the Ethiopian capital have seen 72 arrests, and some 200 injured. Those arrested, according to police, were Islamists demonstrating against perceived liberal implementation of religious laws.
Earlier, on Saturday, the presidents of feuding South Sudan and Sudan expressed a determination to settle their dispute over territory and oil – after meeting for the first time in six months on the sidelines of the summit.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir met late on Saturday.
"They have agreed in principle on all issues," said Pagan Aman, South Sudan's chief negotiator.
The two countries are currently involved in peace talks in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, under the supervision of AU mediators. The two sides are expected to negotiate until August 2.
AU-led negotiations between the two countries have been continuing since the oil rich south gained independence from the north a year ago.
The two sides have so far been unable to reach an agreement on oil transit fees, the status of citizens, border demarcation and the final status of the disputed Abyei territory.
The South has 75% of the region's oil but Juba still depends on the North's pipeline and its Red Sea port to export its crude.
Addressing the disagreement over oil transit fees, Pagan insisted that the two states would reach a solution that is "fair and based on international practice". – Sapa-dpa