His political involvement in South Africa began in the usual liberal British fashion, with the writing of letters to newspapers, organising lectures and debates, founding an organisation with meticulously kept accounts, making petitions and publishing pamphlets. This activity won the sympathy of all parties in India. In 1897 he toured India, meeting Tilak, Ranade, Gokhale and Bannerjee. He adopted the moderate Gokhale as his political guru. He returned to South Africa, and was immediately embroiled in controversy. Nevertheless, in 1899 when the Boer War broke out, he volunteered to lead an ambulance corps. The writings of Naoroji seem to have had little effect on him during this period, because he believed that India was actually gaining out of the British rule.
Non-violent protest as a political tool seems to have been born in 1906. In this year the South African government required that every Indian carry an identification pass. Gandhi led the community in a mass refusal to obey the law. The word satyagraha was coined in 1908 by Gandhi and one of his cousins. By 1914 the movement was making sufficient progress for Gandhi to feel that he could return to India.
For 20 years, Gandhi remained in South Africa. He suffered many beatings and was imprisoned several times by the white South Africans. It was here that Gandhi began teaching his policies of passive resistance, civil disobedience and non-cooperation with the British authorities. Gandhi invented a term to describe his policies. The term was Satyagraha which is Sanskrit for "truth and firmness". In the South African campaign the goal was never for the British to leave, but for the Indians to gain equal rights as citizens. Gandhi’s way of protest was something new for the authorities to deal with. This was part of the reason that in 1914 the South African government agreed to Gandhi’s demands. These included the recognition of Indian marriages and the abolition of the poll tax. Gandhi felt his work there was done and returned to India.