Jones was orphaned as a young child and brought up by his grandparents, but his grandmother also died when he was a boy. He contracted tuberculosis as a child and as a teenager he emigrated for his health first to New Zealand and then to South Africa, where he stayed until 1920.
He was one of the first whites there to champion equal rights for Black South Africans, was imprisoned and is still honored by the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party for his work. He also became a communist and later went to live in the USSR where he became an associate and translator of Lenin.
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