President Jacob Zuma.

President Jacob Zuma's “smart power” and ousted president Thabo Mbeki's “hypersensitivity” were described in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks this week, according to reports today.

Zuma, who became president in 2009, was described as a cunning politician who used negative media coverage around him to create the impression of a “dignified underdog”, Beeld newspaper reported, quoting from the cables.

“Zuma's rise to the pinnacle of South African politics at the same time that serious questions about his character were headline news is an astonishing political achievement in itself,” said a diplomatic cable before his inauguration as president.

“Throughout the most difficult times of the past few years, Zuma came across as reluctant to draw first blood, only displaying subtle determination to take the fight to his aggressors. This is consistent with a leader that is aware of his own strengths - “smart power.”

Zuma, who had graft charges against him withdrawn before taking office, succeeded Mbeki, who was removed from office by the ruling party in 2008.

According to The Star, the sister paper to the Cape Times, Mbeki's ability to accept criticism was questioned.

“The challenge for US officials will be to accept this important, but hypersensitive, African figure as he is, and build a constructive dialogue,” read a cable sent in 2001.

The rightwing town Orania in the Northern Cape also received a mention, albeit unflattering.

“Not a town with a promising future,” said a US official, who had driven through the sleepy town. - Sapa