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He was born on 16 September 1939 in Bonnievale. He matriculated in 1957 at the Hugenot High School in Wellington and studied at the University of Cape Town. His first poems appeared in the student newspaper Groote Schuur in 1959. He left South Africa and went to Paris in the 1960s. He made his debut with the innovative volume Die ysterkoei moet sweet in 1964, and in the same year Katastrofes, a prose work, appeared.
Breyten Breytenbach is considered one of the greatest living poets in Afrikaans.