Don't be offended if people in Soweto in Johannesburg ask you into their houses, our guide says - it's not your fault they are poor.

As a journalist, I wanted to see inside the houses. And it goes without saying you give a donation for the visit, so a win win, eh?

But still, when it's time to look into a real-life squatter camp in this sprawled city within a city of so much history, it feels uncomfortable ... voyeuristic.

We are taken to Motsoaledi, just one of the shanty towns in Soweto, which has developed so much that in some areas there are now mansions owned by post-apartheid millionaires.

Motsoaledi, however, is a dirt-poor collection of little nailed-together shacks with well-heeled tourists strolling around, taking photos.

About 20,000 people live in this community and 60 per cent have no jobs. Most have come from rural areas, still believing Johannesburg is a place of gold, then having to eke out the barest of existences.

We go into the house of a woman who is outside sweeping her path. Her shack is made up of wooden slats hammered together; it wouldn't withstand a storm.

There's no electricity - and no running water either so, like others, she fills water into buckets from communal taps. She built the shack herself, she says, and lives here with her four children.

She moved here to get a job; she's still looking.

Her name is Gladice and she jokes she's glad all the time. She certainly smiles a lot and is so warm and welcoming but, when money is discreetly pressed on her, she looks happier still and says she can buy food for the children now. The price of exposing her humblest of homes to curious tourists is food on the table.

Many of the homes here have flower gardens and are painted bright blues or yellows - but still, it's intrusive. As we leave, a little girl comes up and asks politely for food, not money. Please, please, she says, she's hungry.

A little roadside store sells vegetables and packets of lollies and chips, so I buy some and, with conscience barely salved, we go on with our tour of Soweto. We go past the seven-bedroom house built for Nelson Mandela while he was still imprisoned on Robben Island and past the home where Bishop Desmond Tutu still lives.

There is history at every turn in Soweto. We go past the Mother and Daughter B&B, where Winnie Mandela still stays, and past where a 13-year-old boy was shot dead during the 1976 youth uprising, a peaceful student march protesting against the imposition of the Afrikaans language in schools, which sparked one of the bloodiest of the apartheid eras.

Police opened fire on children, and among the victims was young Hector. Many people died then and in ensuing years. At the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, they are represented by red bricks bearing, where known, their names.

There are photos of the uprisings, television screens with people such as Steve Biko speaking, and witness accounts from those present during the uprising.

"Dumbstruck, they stood in groups all over the area while the wounded lay groaning on the ground," says Harry Mashabela, a journalist.

"Mbuyisa Makhubu, one of the thousands, scooped up the pathetic body of Hector Pieterson and set off down the road, howling with grief with Hector's sister in anguish at his side."

Mashabela took a famous photo of this which went around the world, putting a face to the horror of apartheid.

Makhubu, though, was so harassed for his attempt to save Hector, he had to flee for his life. He was last heard of in Nigeria and never again seen by his family.

Soweto is a poignant reminder of both how far South Africa has come, and how far it has to go.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand now offers a one-stop service to Johannesburg code-sharing with South African Airways from Perth. See www.airnz.co.nz or ring 0800 737 000.

Soweto: For information about Soweto see joburg.org.za.

Further information: To find out more about visiting South Africa see southafrica.net.

Catherine Masters travelled to South Africa courtesy of Air New Zealand.