Raymond Mhlaba was born in Mazoka village at Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape. He attended school at Healdtown but was forced to drop out because of financial problems. After leaving school he worked for a dry cleaning factory in Port Elizabeth in 1942.
His experiences at the factory developed his political views and commitment to the labour struggle. A year later he joined the Communist Party of South Africa and became Secretary for the Port Elizabeth branch until the party was banned in 1950. From 1944 Mhlaba maintained dual membership of the ANC and the CPSA.
He was arrested during the Robben Island. He was transfered to Pollsmoor prison in 1986, where he stayed until his release in 1989 to join the ANC Special Executive Committee that negotiated with the National Party government at Groote Schuur on a democratic future for the South Africa.
In 1991 he was elected into the ANC National Executive Committee and in 1994 he became the Premier of the Eastern Cape. Mhlaba also received the ANC medal Isithwalandwe and served in 1997 as South African High Commissioner to Uganda.
In 1986 Mhlaba married his common-law wife Dideka Heliso, the mother of three of his children.
Mhlaba died on 19 February 2005 in a Port Elizabeth hospital. Thabo Mbeki spoke at his funeral: "Raymond Mhlaba, Ndobe, devoted his entire adult life, covering 60 years, to the service of the people and the cause of freedom.... He grew to become the giant he was, one of the great guides of the struggle our people had and have to wage to free themselves from oppression, poverty and dehumanization."