Soweto may sound like an African name but it is based on an English acronym - SOuth WEst TOwnships. This seems fitting, given how it was created.
It was the British authorities in the early 1900s that began shifting black labourers from Johannesburg to the outskirts of the city after an outbreak of the plague. These settlements would eventually grow into South Africa's biggest township under apartheid. More and more black families would be forcibly removed from homes and dumped in the area as the government sought to reserve the city centre for whites only.
South West Townships was the name it was given but the people who lived there were determined to make it their own, to carve out something better, something unique from the drabness they inherited. And hence, Soweto was born.
The township quickly became a centre of African culture, pride and resistance. Widely considered the birthplace of black political consciousness in South Africa, Soweto took centrestage in the struggle against apartheid. The Soweto Uprising of 1976 put the city on the map globally and is seen as the turning point in the fight for democracy.
Soweto is also famed as the place that nurtured the politics of two of the world's greatest leaders, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Both men lived on the same street in the heart of the township. Given this rich political history, it is perhaps no wonder Soweto has become a tourism destination of choice in the new South Africa.
"It didn't always used to be this way," Siboneseni says. Our Thompsons Africa guide explains that though Soweto is considered the country's fastest-growing city for tourism, only a few years ago, travel companies would mark the area on the map with the words KEEP OUT". Considering the city's high crime rate and ingrained poverty it is perhaps understandable.
But times have changed, even if many of the conditions remain the same, and the city seems intent on embracing its new-found popularity.
Our daytrip of Soweto is part of a nine-day South African itinerary organised by Perth-based New Horizons Holidays. We started our trip in the stunning but highly manufactured Sun City resort and will continue to the countryside of KwaZulu-Natal Province tomorrow. But for today, we are getting a glimpse at life in a city bursting at the seams.
We start at Kliptown, at the Freedom Charter memorial, where thousands gathered in 1955 to draft and adopt core principles calling for equality and an end to discrimination. The brick monument is simple and unembellished. It would make no sense to erect a shiny, costly tribute when a 100m away people live in shacks made from scrap metal, waiting for government housing. Inside, the principles of the charter are etched in stone.
An outgoing Soweto local, draped in the South African flag and playing a recorder, stops his tune to point out a few things to us. Our self-appointed guide gestures towards the statement: The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth! "This has not yet happened. Too many people still having nothing," he says.
We walk from the memorial through Kliptown's colourful farmer's markets before setting off again through the sprawling suburbs and shanty settlements that make up Soweto. Looking out the car window, there are BMWs driving alongside minibus taxis cramped with people, double- storey mansions just metres from makeshift tin houses, parks and playgrounds down the road from piles of rubbish and waste.
It is confronting, surprising and most importantly, real. Soweto is not a manufactured tourist attraction - it is a city caught in the middle of what South Africa once was and what it aspires to be. Where you will find great prosperity, unimaginable poverty and everything in-between.
We stop for lunch on Vilakazi Street, where Mandela and Tutu lived - the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners. Sakhumzi Restaurant offers a buffet lunch with a good selection of South African specialties including mogodu (stewed tripe).
Later, we head for Hector Pieterson Museum, dedicated to the 13-year-old schoolboy killed by police gunfire during the Soweto Uprising. What was supposed to be a peaceful student protest ended with dozens of schoolchildren gunned down, Hector being the first victim. The image of Hector, slumped and bloodied, being carried through the crowd by another schoolboy, sparked international condemnation of the apartheid government. Hector became a symbol, his name synonymous with the struggle for equality and democracy.
Staring at the iconic image of Hector's last moments, it is difficult not be moved. The photograph, which is mounted at the memorial in front of the museum, says it all in just one frame - the pain, devastation and loss of innocence.
Inside the museum, words from those involved in the uprisings feature - the explanations offered by police, the observations of journalists, the testimonies of students. The differing accounts don't meld together like a well-written story. They clash, contradict and challenge - you are reminded history is about gathering truths, not stories.
Regina Mundi Catholic Church where the students fled during the uprisings is also on our agenda. We arrive at the modest-looking cathedral just after Sunday mass and make our way around, inspecting the bullet holes left behind by police trying to force the young protestors out.
There is no denying the politics of Soweto make it a fascinating place to visit. But for me, it is the people who make it unforgettable. All 11 of South Africa's official languages are spoken in Soweto. It is a melting pot of cultures and people, all eager for expression. You can see it in the way they dress, in the street art, but most of all you can hear it in their voices.
We speak to several locals who have decided to stick around after the church service. It strikes me that there is this genuine cheerfulness exuding from everyone we meet, regardless of their circumstances. They are a humble people, inbued with a strong sense of community.
Having missed morning mass we also missed the gospel choir, much to our disappointment. We mentioned this in passing to some churchgoers and before we knew it the choir had reassembled for an impromptu performance just for our group of four. Full of joy and deep with conviction, the voices of the Regina Mundi Roman Catholic choir warmed our souls. The members of the choir - mainly sweet grandmas and charming grandpas - shuffled their feet to the melody and moved their arms in practiced unison. Their perfect harmonies floated through the air and ignited goosebumps. We walked out of the church a few minutes later, eyes wet with tears.
For more information, visit newhorizons.com.au or phone 1300 730 010.
A Soweto Tour departing Sandton costs from $59 per person.