Indian registration cards and the prelude to the pass-burning
Key to the story of the pass-burning is the relationship between Gandhi and Jan Smuts. When Smuts reneged on his deal with Gandhi and the government made it clear that Asiatics could not recall their registrations, the decision was made to burn all existing registration cards.
In January 1908, after being arrested for defying the registration process, Gandhi entered into a series of negotiations with Smuts. The result was that Gandhi would urge all Asiatics to submit to registration voluntarily (and thus preclude the humiliation of coercion), if the Asiatic Registration Act of 1908 was not passed into law. Gandhi took it upon himself to ensure that this happened, much to his own detriment. Elements of the Asiatic community in South Africa rejected the call, considering Gandhi a traitor. He was even attacked by a "burly Pathan", who was later arrested for the assault.
However, in July 1908, it became clear that Smuts had gone against his word, and local municipalities started issuing notices that the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act of 1908 was to come into effect soon. Reeling at the news, another defiance campaign was launched. Middle-class Indian leaders, such as Essop Mia, began trading illegally in Market Square, inviting arrest.
When the government made it clear that Asiatics could not recall their registrations (those who voluntarily registered attempted to recall their registrations in protest at Smut's breach of faith), the decision was made: to burn all existing registration cards.
The dreaded card
See an example of an Asiatic registration card. This is the only surviving copy of such a card, and no details are known of the individuals registered hereunder.
A shaky compromise
This article (see links to images below), published in the Rand Daily Mail in 1908, outlines the "compromise" that was reached between Smuts and Gandhi over the Asiatic Registration Act. According to the compromise, which was reached after Gandhi had been jailed for failing to register, Asiatics would willingly and voluntarily register, but only if the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act was not put in full force - particularly, those regulations that affected Indian traders and the rights of Indians to remain in the country. It was after this "compromise" was reached that Gandhi was released from prison.
See images of the original article, "The Asiatic Trouble: A Compromise", Rand Daily Mail, January 31, 1908: Page 1 | Page 2
A letter from Gandhi
Here Gandhi writes to the editor of the The Leader, a Transvaal newspaper, about how Smuts had gone against the terms of the agreement of the compromise reached between Gandhi and Smuts. In this article, the key point is that Indians were not allowed to voluntarily withdraw their registrations - which meant that, in order to have them rendered useless once more, they would have to be burnt. It also, interestingly, provides Gandhi's own account of how the compromise was reaffirmed minutes before he registered after suffering his "brutal assault".
See an image of the original article, Gandhi, M., "Letter to the editor", The Leader, July 3, 1908
IN this article details are given of Gandhi's defence of an Indian leader arrested for hawking with a license/registration card. It provides concrete proof of how the failure of the government to stick to its compromise agreement had forced the hand of Indian politicians in South Africa.
See an image of the original article, "Smuts v. Gandhi", The Star, July 22, 1908