Tim Bresnan kickstarted England's belated progress in the second Investec Test, on his home ground, once cloud cover rolled in at Headingley.
England endured an ominously and controversially wicketless first session, after Andrew Strauss won the toss.
But Bresnan struck twice, taking England's first wicket in more than 10 hours dating back to day three of the innings defeat at The Oval - when he had Graeme Smith caught at square-leg - and then running out Hashim Amla.
There suddenly seemed to be more in the Leeds pitch too, as bright skies faded to slate grey, and South Africa faltered from 120 without loss to a teatime 163 for three.
Both James Anderson, after Alastair Cook's dropped slip catch, and then - in bizarre circumstances - Steven Finn came frustratingly close to dislodging a South Africa opener before lunch.
Cook put down Alviro Petersen (76no) on 29; then first-change Finn thought he had Smith neatly caught at first slip by Strauss for six, only for umpire Steve Davis to call dead-ball after the fast bowler repeated his uncanny habit of disturbing the bails at the non-striker's end in his delivery stride.
It was a moot point as to whether the flying bails 22 yards away distracted Smith, but the umpire decided they might have - and therefore he had to take action.
Davis ensured consistency, and further uncertainty perhaps for Finn, by calling dead-ball twice more in his first spell. England's wicketless wait would extend to 497 runs, and 138 overs, between Smith's dismissals - here and in London last week.
Smith (52) and Petersen, who made a duck out of 637 for two declared at The Oval, had little initial trouble against England's all-pace attack on a sunny morning.
The hosts were all chips in for the gamble on early wickets with seam or swing, at this venue renowned for often favouring both, having left out off-spinner Graeme Swann for the first time in three-and-a-half years.
The early signs were far from encouraging, though, for a team clinging on to their world number one Test status and needing to at least avoid defeat here to stop South Africa knocking them off their perch.
Anderson should have had Petersen, reprieved by Cook when he missed a straightforward chance at Swann's accustomed second-slip position.
But worse was to follow for England because Finn, returning here in place of Swann, paid dearly for his strange stump-kicking act and gave Smith a second chance.
Petersen was past his 78-ball 50 before lunch, with a pull at Bresnan for his seventh four, and Smith reached his from 91 deliveries in early afternoon.
But the South Africa captain was to succumb at last to England's packed leg-side field, and only three overs later the hosts picked up the significant bonus of Amla's wicket too.
A misfield by Jonathan Trott at cover, misunderstanding between Amla and Petersen - and Bresnan's fine throw from the extra-cover boundary - did for the Oval triple-centurion before he could even make double-figures this time.
When Cook redeemed himself with a smart catch low to his left, at second slip again, after Jacques Kallis toe-ended an attempted cut at Anderson, England needed the threat of rain to hold off.
It did not quite manage to do so until the scheduled tea break, which therefore came three minutes early.