The first time I was in Soweto there was blood in the streets. It was in the late 1980s, and I was reporting on the last, tumultuous days of apartheid. The vast sprawl of black townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg was no place for whites.

Now residents ask tourists to shoot them. This is a friendly invitation to take photographs. How times have changed.

The first tours of the megalopolis of almost 50 townships were by minibus, with tourists getting out briefly to see the sights, meet a few locals, and then driving off.

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It’s better by bicycle. An enterprising young Sowetan who transformed his family home into a backpackers’ hostel has come up with the bright idea of leading more intimate tours on two wheels instead of four.

Which is how I find myself pedalling with a group of young foreigners to a viewpoint overlooking Orlando West, the erstwhile home of Nelson Mandela and scene of a student uprising that heralded the death of apartheid.

Our guide Lungile has a sense of humour. “We have everything in Soweto,” he says. “We’re just still lacking white people.” So we are welcome, and this is apparent in the smiles and greetings of people we pass in a warren of back streets and dusty lanes that are a kaleidoscope of vibrant African life.

The passage of mlungu (whites) is a fun event for barefoot urchins who run to touch hands, which causes a few wobbles and shrieks of laughter.

We stop in a shebeen, a corrugated iron shack that served as an illegal drinking den in the apartheid era, to taste homemade beer called umqombiti. It is a sour, milky brew of sorgam and maize, and I politely decline. I have been here before.

The big sporting passion in Soweto is football, and wherever there is a dusty open space there are kids kicking a ball around, like in the backcourts and shipyards of Glasgow in the old days.

The highlights of the season are fiercely contested local derbies between the Orlando Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs, but their "Old Firm" rivalry seems friendlier than the Glasgow version judging by a colourful semi-detached house we cycle past. One half is painted entirely in the black and white club colours of the Pirates, and the other in the yellow and black of the Chiefs, posting different loyalties but a shared passion for the game.

More than a sightseeing trip, this is an opportunity to learn of the realities of life in the "new" South Africa. Lungile supports a minority political party that demands radical land and economic reforms. “Any freedom that does not touch the land or the economy is not freedom,” he says. “We blacks are politically rich, but we are struggling economically.”

In the heart of Orlando West we visit a memorial to a 13-year-old boy who became an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle when he was shot dead during student protests in 1967.

Its centerpiece is an enlarged image of Hector Pieterson dying in the arms of a youth who tried to save him, and who was forced to flee into exile after being branded a terrorist. Nearby a moving eulogy by the youth’s mother is inscribed on a marble tablet: “… he is not a hero. In my culture, picking up Hector is not an act of heroism. It was his job as a brother. If he left him on the ground and somebody saw him jumping over Hector, he would never be able to live here.”

Pieterson was shot nearby in Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world that has been home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The modest red brick house with corrugated iron roof where Mandela lived before his arrest has become something of a shrine, filled with tributes, awards and copies of his letters from prison.

The street outside is lined with colourful market stalls, smart restaurants and young men performing Zulu dance routines for tourists. Locals call it the Beverly Hills of Soweto. It is a far cry from the rubble-strewn battleground where Hector Pieterson died in a hail of police bullets.

How times have changed.

Bicycle tours range from two hours to a full day and cost £27 (ZAR470) to £43 (ZAR750). Visit sowetobackpackers.com