Pityana was born in Uitenhage and attended the University of Fort Hare. He was one of the founding members of the South African Students' Organisation of the Black Consciousness Movement with Steve Biko. He was also a member of the African National Congress Youth League, and was suspended for challenging the authority of the Afrikaans teachers and the apartheid principles of "Bantu education".
Pityana received a degree from the University of South Africa in 1976 but was barred from practicing law in Port Elizabeth by the apartheid government. He was banned by the apartheid government from public activity. Pityana went into exile in 1978, studying theology at King's College London and training for the ministry Ripon College Cuddesdon in Oxford. Thereafter he served as an Anglican curate in Milton Keynes and as a vicar in Birmingham. From 1988 to 1992 he was Director of the Programme to Combat Racism at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
Pityana returned to South Africa in 1993, following the end of apartheid. He continued working in theology and human rights, completing a PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1995. He was appointed a member of the South African Human Rights Commission in 1995, and served as chairman of the commission from 1995 to 2001. He also served on the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights at the Organisation of African Unity in 1997. Professor Pityana became Vice-Chancellor and Principal for the University of South Africa in 2001 and held the position for nine years.
He is the President of Convocation of the University of Cape Town.
- Pityana, Barney. "Black Theology and the struggle for liberation." Index on Censorship. October 1983. Web. 26 Jul. 2010.
- "ABRIDGED RESUME: Nyameko Barney Pityana". All-Africa Ministers' Conference on Open Learning and Distance Education. Retrieved 2008-11-02.[dead link]
- "Nyameko Barney Pityana's Biography". International Council for Open and Distance Education. Retrieved 2008-11-02.[dead link]
- "Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos wins 2002 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize". UNESCO. Archived from the original on 10 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-02.
- Only ourselves to blame, ADRIENNE CARLISLE, The Times, 25 September, 2012,
- Dear Mr Zuma, it’s time for you to go, Barney Pityana, Sunday Independent, 24 february 2013
- Remembering Biko: A bright and guiding light in dark times, Unemployed People's Movement Press Statement, 18 September 2012