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A celebration of the life of a forgotten Welsh internationalist

MEIC BIRTWISTLE previews commemoration events taking place next week to remember a Welshman at the heart of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle

“REMEMBER that an injury to one is an injury to all, be he black or white. While the black worker is oppressed, the white worker cannot be free.”

Writing in South Africa in 1919, the Welshman David Ivon Jones was preaching truly revolutionary politics for that time and place. And it is this extraordinary man and his ideas that we will be celebrating next week on the centenary of his death with an exciting festival of events in his home town, Aberystwyth.  

Sadly, though commemorated in Johannesburg and Moscow for his socialist and anti-apartheid activities, the inhabitants of the place of his birth — save for one small plaque — are largely unaware of his life. However, a group of socialists from a range of parties are now intending to rectify that situation.

In 1904 in his grocer’s account book in Ceredigion, a young man was composing dangerously radical thoughts. In among a list of payments for bread, jam and sundries, he translated into his native Welsh a hymn by the English Chartist Ebenezer Elliot, parodying God Save the King and pleading the plight of the people above princes. And this at the very height of power of the British monarchy and its worldwide empire.

“Pa bryd iacheir y bobl?
O dywed Ior, Pa bryd?
Y bobl, Arglwydd tirion,
Nid gorseddfeingciau’r byd.”

(“God Save the People
When wilt Thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
Not kings and lords, but nations,
Not thrones and crowns but men!”)

David Ivon Jones, orphaned as a child, had been forced to leave school at 14. But under the influence of the radical Unitarian religious beliefs rife in his county he began increasingly to question established theological, philosophical and political theories.

A new book containing many of his writings will chronicle David Ivon’s story and political developments and be launched over the weekend of  these events, while the actor Roger Owen will chart his life and thoughts through dramatic readings in character at the   “Arad Goch” Theatre in Aberystwyth.

Soon tuberculosis and wanderlust would send David out into the British empire in search of work and “to follow the gleam.” On a sea voyage to family in New Zealand in 1907 he fell in with Russian political emigres, one of whom narrated their story of opposing pogroms and suffering tsarist imprisonment furthering David Ivon’s radicalisation.

“He was going one night to a secret congregation of 20 peasants in a cottage; to speak to them on socialistic ideas and the rights of man: Presently there came a rat tat at the door, and in came six secret police.”

New Zealand could not hold his interest for long. And soon he’d decamped for South Africa, a crucible of the industrial revolution with its gold and coalmines and resultant revolutionary labour politics. Soon in the forefront of working-class struggles in that country, he got himself arrested for his dangerous political pronouncements. 

“Before Labour can emancipate itself, black workers as well as white must combine in one organisation of Labour, irrespective of craft, colour or creed.”

In 1986 the legendary Welsh Marxist historian Professor Gwyn Alf Williams, enthralled by David Ivon’s story, presented two historical documentaries on the life of this revolutionary thinker for BBC Wales and S4C.

These will be screened at the National Library of Wales as part of the festival. Filmed under the noses of the apartheid-era authorities by the radical television production company Teliesyn, the producer/director of the programmes, Colin Thomas, will be present to relate the story of those exciting productions.

Why do you live in slavery? Why are you not free? Why are you kicked and spat upon by your masters? … Why do you toil for little money? Why do they herd you like cattle into compounds, WHY? Because you are the toilers of the earth.” (1918)

In tribute to David Ivon’s work as a leading progressive thinker in South African politics, the festival is proud to present a special preview showing of the new award-winning drama-documentary by director Gordon Main of another largely forgotten group of young revolutionaries in the South African struggle, London Recruits.

These were British communists recruited by the ANC to carry out dangerous undercover operations in apartheid South Africa. And the screening will be followed by in person contributions by Steve Marsling and Sean Hosey, operatives portrayed in the film.

A further volume of Ivon Jones’s works to cover his later adventures in the nascent Soviet Union where he became an adviser to the Comintern on Africa and colonial issues in general is now in progress. 

Here he came to know Lenin and Trostsky and wrote even more insightful pieces on imperialism. Sacrificing his health through the climate and overwork to the cause of his political beliefs he died in 1924 aged only 40 and was buried in a Moscow monastery cemetery reserved for famous figures such as Chekov, Shostakovich and Khrushchev.

“When men cease to exploit one another, nations will so cease to exploit. As hostility between classes within a nation is done away with by the abolition of classes, then and only then, will hostilities between nations vanish.”

So come and take part in these commemorative events which are sponsored by Unite Community and entirely free. In the words of David Ivon himself: “Get Ready for the World-wide Republic of Labour.”

The African from Aberystwyth film screening will take place on Friday June 28 at 6pm, at the National Library of Wales SY23 3BU, followed by a discussion with Colin Thomas, the film’s director. 

The launch of White, Black and Red in South Africa: DI Jones Articles and Speeches published by Praxis Press will take place at Arad Gogh, Bath Street, SY23 2NN, on Saturday June 29, featuring a discussion with the editors, Robert Griffiths and Meic Birtwistle.

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