Pallo Jordan was born on 22 May 1942 in B Location, Kroonstad, in the Orange Free State. His father, Dr Archibald Campbell Jordan, was an African novelist, linguist and academic and his mother, Dr Priscilla Phyllis Jordan (born, Ntantala), was a teacher, researcher and lecturer. Both his parents were active members of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). Jordan's family was highly politicised and he followed in their footsteps. He started off at the age of seven by selling copies of Torch, a newspaper produced by the NEUM.
He was a diligent scholar. On completion of his schooling, he attended various universities in South Africa, the United States of America and Britain. He left the country in 1962 to study at the University of Wisconsin in the U.S. He has acquired a number of degrees including a post-graduate degree from the London School of Economics.
Jordan worked in London for the African National Congress (ANC) on full-time basis at its London office in 1975 as researcher in the ANC Department of Information and Publicity. He was deployed to Angola in 1977 to head Radio Freedom based in Luanda. That same year he also became involved in training programmes for new recruits to Umkhonto we Sizwe, employing his academic background in history to compile a syllabus for political training.
In 1979, on the recommendation of Oliver Tambo, he was appointed director of the ANC's first internal mass propaganda campaign, The Year of the Spear, marking the centenary of the Battle of Isandhlwana of 1879. With Jordan at the helm the ANC produced a plethora of imaginative communication tools including posters, postcards, floppy disks, cassette tapes, bumper stickers, T-shirts, comic books and news sheets with the aim of reviving in popular memory the traditions of armed resistance to combat colonial domination. In 1980, Jordan was promoted to head the Research Unit of the ANC Department of Information and Publicity. This appointment required him to relocate to the movement’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
Jordan wrote many critical articles. The quality of his research work is reflected in his published papers. These include, among others,Review of Moses Kotane: African Revolutionary (1974); The Soweto Uprising: an Analysis (1976) and The African Petit Bourgeoisie: A Case Study of NAFCOC (1984).
Between 1985 and his return to South Africa in mid-1990, Jordan led a number of delegations of ANC researchers and scholars to international conferences and seminars in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, the USA, Britain and the then USSR. In 1985, he was elected to serve in the ANC National Preparatory Committee, which was preparing for its major policy conference in Kwabe, Botswana. At this conference Jordan was appointed to the ANC National Executive Committee. From 1985 to 1989 he served on the NEC's Strategy and Tactics Committee as Convenor. He has also served on the NEC's Sub-Committee on Negotiations and the NEC's Sub-Committee on Constitutional Guidelines. In 1986, Jordan accompanied Oliver Tambo, Mac Maharaj, Chris Hani, Thabo Mbeki and James Stuart to a meeting between White business leaders and the ANC at the Kangwa Game Reserve, Zambia. He was also part of the ANC's delegations to the IDASA-sponsored Dakar (1987) and Paris (1989) conferences. He took over from Thabo Mbeki as Director of Information and Publicity in 1989.
A paper entitled The Southern Africa Policy of the Soviet Union - with Specific Reference to South Africa: Some Notes (1990) marked a refreshing departure for an ANC scholar in its critical appraisal of Soviet policy from a left perspective. In 1990, he entered into a lengthy debate on the character of the Soviet Union with South African Communist Party chairman, Joe Slovo, in an article titled The Crisis of Conscience in the SACP - A Critical Review of Slovo's 'Has Socialism Failed?' demonstrating the diversity of opinion in the tripartite alliance. He later took issue with Slovo again over the strategic direction of the negotiations process in 1993.
After the unanticipated announcement by State President F.W. de Klerk to unban the ANC and other liberation movements, Jordan returned to the country in June 1990. In 1991, he managed to retain his NEC position at the ANC’s first consultative National Conference within the country in thirty years. He became a well-known personality on South African television as the ANC's main media spokesperson before and during the 1994 elections.
After South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994, Jordan was sworn in as Member of Parliament and Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Broadcasting of the Government of National Unity on 9 May. He served on two Cabinet Committees, namely, Economic and Social and Administrative Affairs.
In April 1996, he was replaced by Jay Naidoo as Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Broadcasting after a cabinet reshuffle. He was re-appointed to a cabinet post in May 1996, as the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism until he was dropped in 1999 having served his full term as minister.
From 1999 to 2004, he served as Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the National Assembly. After the 2004 National Elections, Jordan was appointed Minister of Arts and Culture by President Thabo Mbeki, a post he held from April 2004 to May 2009. Jordan and his wife Carlyn Roth have one daughter.