Ben Martins was born in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg and attended school at St Joseph’s School in Aliwal North, Bechet College in Durban and Coronationville High School in Johannesburg. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Africa, a Bachelor of Law (LLB) degree from the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and a Master of Law Degree (LLM) as well as a Post Graduate Diploma in Management Practice from the University of Cape Town.
Martins was a member of the Black Consciousness Movement beginning in the 1970s. With an artistic background after studying at Bill Ainslie's studio and at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA) with the likes of Johnny Rieberio, Fikile Magadlela and Thamsanqa Mnyele, and posters for the movement. He later produced the famous poster distributed at Biko's funeral. In the late 1970s, he traveled to Botswana and Lesotho to meet with activists-in-exile such as Mnyele and Wally Serote and in 1979, became a member of the African National Congress (later joining Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed branch of the ANC). He was made the chief coordinator of the visual art committee in South Africa for assisting artists to attend the Culture and Resistance Conference and Festival in Gaborone. From 1977 up to the time of his arrest he worked and ran art workshops while setting up one of the earliest silk screen and poster making collectives at the Old Mill building in Pietermaritzburg.
During the 1980s, he produced T-shirts and posters for the United Democratic Front, while also contributing poetry, essays, and graphics to Staffrider magazine, an important and explicitly non-racial literary production in the 70s and 80s written for the general public about daily life in South Africa.
He was later arrested under the Terrorism Act and from 1983 to 1991, was jailed at Robben Island and in Johannesburg. For a period of seven months prior to trial, he was placed in solitary confinement and tortured by the security police. During his time on trial and in prison, he was able to write a book of poetry entitled Baptism of Fire, published in 1984. After his release, he took a job working for the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. In addition, he released his second work in 1992, Prison Poems.
Ben Martins became a Member of Parliament after the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. While serving in Parliament, he was appointed by President Jacob Zuma to serve as Deputy Minister of Public Enterprises, which he did from November 1, 2010 to June 12, 2012. During a subsequent cabinet reshuffle, he was promoted to become Minister of Transport, serving from June 2012 to July 2013. He was then appointed to become Minister of Energy on July 10, 2013. He was unsuccessful in a bid to become a member of the ANC National Executive Committee in 2012.
As politics must teach people the ways and give them the means to take control over their own lives, art must teach people, in the most vivid and imaginative ways possible, to take control over their own experience and observations, how to link these with the struggle for liberation and a just society free of race, class and exploitation.
In addition to his governmental duties, he is a Member of Council of the Robben Island Museum and an Executive Committee Member of the Caversham Centre for writers and artists. He continues to be a patron of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW). He is still a practicing artist, with his artwork forming part of the permanent Art collection of the Killie Campbell Collection of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Pretoria and Johannesburg Art Galleries, as well as that of numerous private collections.