Bester was born in 1956 in Montagu, a small town 150 km from Cape Town, South Africa.  His father was Xhosa and his mother was classified Coloured according to the Apartheid system of the time. Bester displayed talent early. When other boys made basic wire cars, his cars were elaborated and decorated, and he began to paint at the age of seven. When he was 10 years old, his family was forcibly removed in accordance with the Group Areas Act. Bester soon had to leave school to help the family economically.
In his late teens, Bester, like many township and rural youth in similar situations joined the South African Defence Force. He spent a year there, and another in a military camp for unemployed black youth. The experiences of raw and naked racism and the war were important influences.
At the age of 30 Bester returned to the childhood interest of art. The Community Arts Project (CAP) in District Six gathered a community of socially committed artists he began to associate with. He used his art to express a political conscience, and became active in the anti-apartheid movement. In the 1980s he became gradually more successful and known nationally and internationally and turned professional in 1991.
Bester's works are collages assembled from scraps and junk from flea markets, townships and scrap yards like shoes, bones, tins, newspaper clippings, metal pieces combined with the use of oil paints and photographs. The themes of the art works stem from the political issues of the time: during the Apartheid era, forced removals and brutalisation of society; today, crime, greed, poverty and corruption. He is quoted as saying: "People have built up a resistance to anything that addresses the psyche of mankind or people or themselves. I believe that we must protest against that which is wrong. There is no form of escape; remaining apolitical is a luxury that South Africans simply cannot afford."
Solo exhibitions (selection)
- 1982 Forum, Cavendish Square, Cape staad.
- 1991 Gallery International, Cape Town
- 1992 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
- 1993 South African Association of Art, Cape Town
- 1994 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
- 1998 Emporain, Dakar
- 1999 Opere Recenti, Studio d'Arte Raffaelli, Trento, Italy
- 1999 Archivio Della Scuola Romana, Introdotto da Achille Bonito Oliva, Roma, Italy
- 2000 Arte Assortite, Torino
- 2001 Centre D'Art Contemporain, Brussels, Belgium
- 2002 SASOL Museum, Stellenbosch
- 2003 Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town
- 2005 34 LONG, Cape Town
- 2007 Montagu Museum
- 2008 Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
- 2009 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
Group exhibitions (selection)
- 1989 Baxter Gallery, Cape Town
- 1990 Gallery International, Cape Town
- 1991 Operation Hunger Exhibition, Cape Town
- 1991–92 ZABALAZA FESTIVAL, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford
- 1992 Primart Gallery, Cape Town
- 1993 Venice Biennale, INCROCI DEL SUD: An exhibition of works by 27 contemporary South African Artists
- 1993–94 INCROCI DEL SUD, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
- 1994 UN ART CONTEMPORIAN D'AFRIQUE DU SUD, Galerie De L'Esplanade, La Defence, Paris
- 1995 DIALOGUES OF PEACE, Exhibition for the UN's 50th Anniversary, Palaise Des Nations, Geneva
- 1996 Basel Art Fair, Basel, Switzerland
- 1996 Contemporary Art from South Africa, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin
- 1997 Galleria d'Art Moderna e Contemporanea di San Marino, San Marino
- 1998 Biennale de l'Art Contemporian, Dakar, Senegal
- 1999 Claiming Art Reclaiming Space, National Museum of African Art, Washington DC.
- 2000 Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
- 2001 Barcelona Contemporary Cultural Center, Spain
- 2002 Passport to South Africa, Centro Culturale "Trevi", Bolzano, Italy
- 2003 Suidoos Festival, Peninsula Technikon 'Coexistence- Contemporary Cultural Production in South African' Rose Art Museum, USA
- 2004 Africa Remix - Düsseldorf, Museum Kunst Palast: 24 July–7 November 2004
- 2005 London, Hayward Gallery
- 2006 Tokyo, Mori Art Museum
- 2007 Rocca di Castagnoli, Biennale Internazionale d'Art, Italy
- 2009 34 LONG FINE ART, Cape Town
- House, Gloria, Alison Kenzie, und Art Gallery of Windsor. Willie Bester: apartheid laboratory : Art Gallery of Windsor, February 24-June 17, 2007. Art Gallery of Windsor, 2008.
- Lee, Donvé. Willie Bester: Art as a Weapon. Awareness Publishing, 2008.