Tshwete was born in Springs, just outside Johannesburg, on 12 November 1938. He grew up in the village of Nkonkqweni, in King William's Town and in East London. Both of Tshwete’s parents were workers, which meant that the family was quite poor. He had to help with the tending of the fields while growing up. Tshwete’s parents felt that education was very important, and his mother taught him to write in the evenings before he even went to school. In Standard six he received a bursary, which allowed him to complete his schooling.
It was while still at school that Tshwete became politically aware, when, in 1955 he stated following the Treason Trial reports in the newspapers. In 1957, when he started at Forbes Grant Secondary School in King William's Town, he was introduced to African National Congress (ANC) literature. The principal of the school, H Mjamba, played an important role in developing his political thought. In 1960 Tshwete moved to East London's Welsh High. It was here that he joined the African Students' Association and began to show organisational abilities. He also helped found the East London Youth Club, which recruited people to work in the underground structures of the ANC, and he became general secretary.
In 1962 Tshwete was delegate of the Spring Rose Rugby Football Club at the GOMPO Rugby Union, when the then Department of Bantu Development terminated the life span of the East London Sports Board. The East London Bantu Sports Board was installed in its place and sport was to be organised along racial lines. Tshwete participated in various campaigns to protest this change.
After leaving school, Tshwete became more actively involved in the ANC. He became secretary of the Border regional command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He worked with the underground structures until 1963, when he was arrested. In 1964 he was found guilty of sixteen accounts of sabotage and belonging to a banned organisation and sentenced to fifteen years on Robben Island. While on Robben Island he managed to complete a BA degree from UNISA. He was also involved in various committees, and was President of the Island Rugby Board, President of the Island Amateur Athletics Association, Vice-Chairperson of the Dynaspurs Football Club and Chairperson of the Ikwezi Rugby Football Club. He was released in 1978, and returned to the Border region. Here he took up a teaching post and continued political work.
In 1983, with the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF), Tshwete decided to get involved in the movement. He was elected to the position of President for the Border region, but could not continue his work for long, as he was arrested late in that year by the Ciskei government. He was held at the police station for four months and, after his release, faced continual harassment by the Security Police. After being declared a persona non grata by the Minister of Home Affairs, he decided to leave the country.
Tshwete first went to Maseru, and then in 1985 moved to Zambia. He moved across the world in the next years doing political and military work. While in exile Tshwete held various offices, including secretary of the 75th Anniversary Committee, member of the Politico-Military Council secretariat and Army Commissar of MK.
In 1988 Tshwete became part of the NEC of the ANC, and joined the talks at Groote Schuur in 1990. In May of the same year he retuned to South Africa and took up the position of chairperson of the National Organising Committee. During the late 1990s, Tshwete played an important role in normalizing South African sport as. During the late 1990s, Tshwete played an important role in normalizing South African sport as Minister of Sport and Recreation. He held this portfolio until 1999, when he was made Minister of Safety and Security. On 26 April 2002 Tshwete died, leaving behind his wife Pamela and three children.