The burning cars, riots and mass funerals broadcast by the international media during the 1980s are long gone. These days Soweto is a much more optimistic place than it was back then. Even so, a visit will unveil grim snapshots of life in the slums. So why go? One good reason is that Soweto has played such an integral part in South Africa's history that it's hard to get a complete picture of the nation's evolution unless you visit the township. Our car pulls up at Motsoaledi, one of Soweto's shanty towns, where our guide Aby (short for Abraham) Mongane waves at a group of loitering youths. One of the more well-dressed young men, clad in jeans and a black leather jacket, bounds over. He introduces himself as Eric Simphiwe, a resident who is eager to take us through his home settlement. Even though Mongane assures us it is safe to walk here with Simphiwe, niggling doubts form as we shuffle along a narrow dirt path past unruly curls of dilapidated chicken-wire fencing. I glance over my shoulder to catch Mongane nodding, his lips forming a slight grin. Is that a sign of encouragement or amusement? The track opens out onto a wider dirt road within the settlement; here, shacks are neatly patched together with sheets of corrugated metal. The children's playground in the day-care centre has colourful swings and slides. At the front of another hut, a board displays pictures of women sporting hairdos ranging from afros to dreadlocks. According to Simphiwe, the settlement's hairdressers do a roaring trade. We stop in front of a public tap near a ramshackle shed advertising Coca-Cola and the Justice Tuck Shop. It is shocking to learn the homes in Motsoaledi have no running water or electricity and are not attached to a sewage system. Imagine 24,000 people sharing water for bathing, washing and cooking from only 40 public taps. Soweto (short for southwestern townships) was established in 1905 when the Johannesburg City Council, following an outbreak of the bubonic plague, seized the opportunity to establish racially segregated residential areas. Today, estimates of Soweto's population (the last census was conducted in 2001) range from more than 1 million to 3.5 million, all living in about 10,000 hectares. There are 270 primary schools, 70 secondary schools and the Soweto campus of Johannesburg University. The post-apartheid economy has created a few black billionaires and a growing middle class, many of whom have moved out of Soweto to live in wealthier areas. Nevertheless, thousands of black South Africans still struggle to find jobs and cannot afford proper housing. While touring a shanty town is free, local guides such as Simphiwe can make up to 100 rand (HK$110) daily in tips by taking visitors on strolls through the settlement. We visit the home of single mother Nokwanda, who lives in a two-room shack with her three teenage sisters and eight-month-old son Owami. Their main living area is furnished with a rickety lace-covered dining table, a couple of broken chairs, a badly slashed leather lounge, a camping stove and some cooking implements. The bedroom smells stale and is crammed with a large lumpy mattress and more odd bits of furniture. All the furniture is in poor condition. But for Nokwanda, who works two days a week as a domestic helper, this is the best it's going to get for the foreseeable future. The list of applicants for welfare housing is so long that people like her, who lack the means to bribe their way to the top, believe the wait will be more than 10 years. Allowing visitors to peek into her ramshackle home is a tolerable imposition as they are encouraged to leave a small tip. 'I don't mind showing you my house,' she says, resting Owami on her hip. 'It's a good way for me to make extra money.' Not everyone in Soweto lives in such poor conditions; many parts of the township resemble middle-class suburbia, with green lawns, rendered homes and late-model sedans parked in driveways. Mongane, a well-spoken former resident, is full of facts, figures and stories about the settlement and South Africa's struggle for freedom. His eyes glisten as he recalls an incident during the days when blacks had to carry migration permits to move around the country. A policeman stopped him randomly in the street and asked to see his permit, which on this day he had forgotten to carry. 'When the policeman stopped me, I was so frightened I couldn't speak,' he says. 'I really thought they would take me away and lock me up in a place where my family would never find me again.' Our tour takes us to the former home of Nelson Mandela (now a shabby museum packed with memorabilia such as his honorary degrees, photographs of the Mandela family and gifts from celebrities). Elected as president in 1994, Mandela is revered as South Africa's father of liberation. He resided in the Ngakane Street house from 1946 but was rarely there during the volatile years of political activism before his arrest in 1962. Nearby is the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who still stays there when he visits Soweto). We drive past hitchhikers walking along the main road with their hands in the air, signalling their intended destinations with their fingers. It's a code that's understood by the locals: two girls are looking for a lift to the shopping mall; a man is on his way to church; a family is hoping for a ride to the next district. Among the sea of black faces, we spot a Caucasian woman walking the streets alone. According to Mongane, she is a scholar from Europe researching life in Soweto for her thesis. There are signs of growth everywhere. South Africa's largest hospital and a colossal shopping centre are both located just down the road from shacks selling fruit, brooms and used car parts. We stop at the memorial that commemorates the death of Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old schoolboy killed on June 16, 1976, during protests against the use of Afrikaans as a teaching language. Those protests - which started with a student march towards the Orlando West Secondary School on Vilakazi Street - triggered a chain of events that became the turning point in the struggle for liberation. When the students refused to disband, police fired tear gas into the crowd. Chaos ensued, Pieterson was shot dead and the students began the historic clash with security forces that is now known as the Soweto Uprising. Soweto's largest Catholic church, Regina Mundi (which means Queen of the World), took a pivotal role in the resistance movement, playing host to political meetings and offering sanctuary to the oppressed. Visitors stream into the place of worship to see its scars: a broken marble alter, bullet holes in the ceiling and the damaged figure of Jesus Christ. As it's Sunday, a wave of churchgoers dressed in their finest streams into the new hall of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God to hear the day's sermon. 'God doesn't want you to be poor and ashamed; he wants you to drive a new car, live in a classy house, use the latest cell phone and wear designer clothes,' bellows the preacher, who is answered with elated cries of agreement from a congregation of thousands. It's more of a business motivational talk than a religious address. The preacher encourages worshippers to dream up money-making schemes to capitalise on the 2010 soccer World Cup that South Africa will host. Having achieved political freedom, it seems prosperity is now the goal of Soweto's residents. Getting there: South African Airways ( www.flysaa.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Johannesburg. Abercrombie and Kent ( www.abercrombiekent.com ) operates tours to Soweto.