Eben Donges was born on 8 March 1898 in the town of Klerksdorp. He attended Stellenbosch University and received a law degree from the University of London.:698 When he returned from London, he became active in the National Party and joined its mouthpiece, Die Burger, as a journalist.:698 He left journalism in 1927 and practised law.:698
Running for parliament, he was unsuccessful in his first attempt in 1938 before obtaining a seat in 1941.:698 He became a National Party cabinet member in 1948 serving as Minister of Posts and Telegraphs.:698 Dr Dönges was a senior member of the National Party which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994. As Minister of the Interior, from 1948 to 1961, he was one of the so-called "architects" of apartheid, introducing race-based population registration, and removing Coloured voters from the common voters' roll as a prelude to disenfranchising them altogether.:698 During his tenure as Minister of the Interior, Dönges believed that apartheid would continue only for the next two generations. In November 1953, after DF Malan resigned as Cape Provincial leader, Dönges defeated Eric Louw to become the new provincial leader. He was Minister of Finance from 1958 to 1966.:698 After the assassination of Prime Minister Verwoerd, Dönges became acting Prime Minister on 6 September 1966 until a National Party congress named B. J. Vorster to succeed to the premiership.:698
Dönges was elected to the titular office of State President to succeed C.R. Swart on his retirement on 1 June 1967, but suffered a stroke and fell into a coma before he could take office.:698 He died on 10 January 1968 without regaining consciousness.:698 His deputy Jozua Naudé acted for him until 6 December 1967 when he officially replaced Dönges.
He received the posthumous honours granted to a former State President: a state funeral and his effigy on the following year's coins. There is a school in Cape Town named after him, Eben Dönges High School.