President Jacob Zuma agreed on Friday to freeze tuition fees at South Africa’s public universities, yielding to widening protests by students who streamed into the capital, Pretoria, by the thousands and protested outside his office.
In a short televised statement, Mr. Zuma said he had made the decision after meeting with student leaders and top university administrators, but did not elaborate on his thinking. “Government understands the difficulty faced by students from poor households and urges all affected to allow the process to unfold to find long-term solutions in order to ensure access to education by all students,” he said.
In the largest protest organized by university students this year, thousands from campuses across the country rallied Friday at the Union Buildings, the seat of power in South Africa chanting and holding signs demanding a freeze on tuition and criticizing Mr. Zuma’s administration.
“I’m so excited,” said Nonsikelelo Nako, 24, a student from the University of South Africa who participated in the march. “We’ve been crying for this. Our struggle at the end of the day became a new freedom for us.”
Protests have erupted across many of South Africa’s public universities this year, with anger focusing on the deep-rooted economic and racial cleavages remaining a generation after the end of apartheid.
But in recent days, the protests have spread outside the campuses, as students have leveled their ire directly at the government. Students and police officers clashed outside the Parliament building in Cape Town, and students marched on Wednesday to the headquarters of the African National Congress, the liberation movement that has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Ramabina Mahapa, 23, president of the University of Cape Town’s student government, said he and others had initially taken their demands about freezing fees to university administrators.
“We wanted them to put pressure on government,” said Mr. Mahapa before he was scheduled to join a student delegation to meet Mr. Zuma. “Then we quickly realized that their hands were tied and that in fact they were to a certain extent sympathetic towards us. Then our efforts changed and were now directed towards government.”
Clashes between the police and some students continued even after Mr. Zuma made his announcement, suggesting lingering anger at the government. The protest in the last few days widened to include students who had not participated in previous demonstrations.
Thando Khumalo, 25, a communications major at the University of Johannesburg, said she first became involved on Wednesday. Ms. Khumalo said she grew angry last week as discussions over the tuition increases were going nowhere. Her parents, who work as teachers, have paid her fees but would struggle to put her younger brother through college, she said.
People are struggling to pay for higher education in South Africa,” she added. “It’s become a commodity where only the elites are able to access something that’s able to move us from — let’s say if you come from the middle class — move you up higher so that you can do well for your family.”
Referring to the post-apartheid nation of opportunity and equality that the African National Congress had pledged to create, she said, “Why are we still struggling after we were promised so much in 1994?”
Though many South African blacks share deep dissatisfaction with the governing party, there have been few signs so far that the student protests are drawing wide, active support. Unions have expressed solidarity but have yet to offer assistance. Neither have the students received support from the vast majority of poor blacks who remain the A.N.C.’s backbone of support.
The A.N.C. and the country’s two main opposition parties have tried to jump onto the protest movement. But students firmly rejected the overtures.
After meeting with students on Wednesday, Gwede Mantashe, the group’s secretary general, urged party members to join the march in Pretoria on Thursday. “It should not be seen as a march that is against the A.N.C.,” Mr. Mantashe said.
But because the organization has nearly single-handedly shaped post-apartheid South Africa, the march on Friday and the yearlong campus protests have amounted to an indictment of it. The A.N.C., especially under Mr. Zuma, has come to be seen as a corrupt political machine more interested in enriching its members than in lifting up the poor blacks who supported it before and after apartheid.
Though the party’s national standing remains unchallenged, its support has been declining. Party leaders have publicly expressed fears that the A.N.C. might suffer significant losses in next year’s elections in metropolitan areas, home to the kind of educated, middle-class blacks that have been leaving the party.
Universities, which say they are underfunded by the government, had proposed significant increases. The University of the Witwatersrand, a flash point of the demonstrations, had planned a 10.5 percent increase in tuition for next year. In 2015, tuition at the university ranged from $2,400 to $3,500 for a full year at the undergraduate level.
Early this week, Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, offered to cap increases for 2016 at 6 percent. But students insisted on no increase.