Luli Callinicos was born in Johannesburg, and is of Hellenic descent. She began her involvement in the struggle for democracy at an early age. She began her career teaching history at schools and was involved in the trade union movement.
She became a member of the Congress of Democrats in her youth, and wrote several protest letters to newspapers as part of a concerted campaign after the banning of the African National Congress (ANC).
Callinicos wrote articles for Fighting Talk, a journal which was edited by Ruth First. During the 1960s, Callinicos taught English literacy to workers in the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) offices in Johannesburg.
She is well known for her work on the formation of the South African working class, which includes a trilogy of books, namely Gold and Workers (1981), Working Life: Factories, Townships and Popular Culture (1987), which won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, and A Place in the City: the Rand on the Eve of Apartheid (1993).
In 1992, she was commissioned to write Oliver Tambo’s biography, which was published as Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains.
Callinicos has also taught history, lectured and pioneered workshops at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). She is credited with putting forward the often neglected history of 'ordinary' South Africans.
Callinicos has also written The World that made Mandela (2000), which identifies the people and places that shaped this iconic figure.
Callinicos served as a Council member of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and has been involved in a number of heritage committees and advisory panels for the Department of Arts and Culture and the Department of Science and Technology.
She continues to research and to write and is a trustee of Freedom Park in Pretoria.