Matthew Goniwe was born in Lingelihle Township which lies on the outskirts of the town of Cradock in the Eastern Cape. He came from a large family of eight children of whom he was the youngest. He attended the St James School and Cradock Bantu Secondary School, passing his Junior Certificate examination in 1963. As a boy, Goniwe played rugby and took part in boxing for a club in the township. He was not only active but also had a softer, musical side. This love of music led him to join, at an early age, the Cradock Male Voices under the leadership of his brother, Jacques (Bahman, 2003).
Goniwe decided to become a teacher and registered at the University of Fort Hare. His majors were mathematics and science. It was whilst studying at Fort Hare that Goniwe became involved in student politics. Upon his graduation in 1967, he became a teacher at Sam Xhallie Junior Secondary School. Goniwe showed his commitment to education by establishing a school, Holomisa Secondary, in a church hall in the village of Mqanduli which lay about a half hour’s drive from Umtata. In 1975, Matthew Goniwe joined a political study group and was arrested in 1976, under the suppression of communism act (Bahman, 2003).
He was sentenced to four years imprisonment in Umtata. His time in jail was profitably used, by studying for a B.A. degree, majoring in political science and education. A short while after his release, Goniwe obtained a post as acting principal of a high school in Graaf-Reinet. He subsequently became principal of Sam Xhallie Junior Secondary School. He was known as a strict disciplinarian, being a stickler for punctuality. Together with a colleague, Fort Calata, he worked at restoring discipline in the school. Absenteeism too, became a thing of the past, within a short time, order had been created within the school (Bahman, 2003).
A humanist at heart, Goniwe strove to improve the general living conditions of the surrounding community. Dismayed by the alcohol and dagga abuse that he saw going on all around him, he set about trying to put things right. Goniwe felt strongly that educators ought to stand up for what was right. They could do this by striving to instil a set of values into the future generations by being a good example (Bahman, 2003).