Deeply intertwined in the lives of Indian South Africans is the impact of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who from 1893– 1914 waged many battles to challenge the discrimination they faced. He used the strategy of non-violent resistance, known as satyagraha, or the power of truth.
In 1902 he returned to India, with the promise to come back if needed. The growing restrictions on Indian residential and trading rights provided such a need, and Gandhi returned to address the conflict between the Indian community in the Zuid- Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), or Transvaal, and the colonial government.
In 1906 he launched the Transvaal Indian passive resistance protest against the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, a new law requiring Indians to be fingerprinted and carry passes. Some 3 000 protesters gathered to oppose the indignity of this. Gandhi, with leaders of other communities in South Africa, went to London to oppose other planned discriminatory legislation. He also served as a link with nationalist leaders in India, drawing attention to measures such as a contract labour tax in Natal which applied only to Indians, and restrictions on land ownership and freedom of movement within the country.
In 1908 a pass-burning demonstration led to his arrest. This form of civil disobedience later resonated with black women, who followed similar methods of protest. In 1913 Indian coal miners and indentured labourers in Natal went on strike, resulting in the arrest of thousands of the resisters. When Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he had accomplished small gains, but these were quickly reversed through more sophisticated legislation aimed at curtailing the political and economic power of Indians. However, Gandhi’s presence in South Africa left an indelible mark on the wider political culture and forms of resistance.