Ian Bell's admirable resistance foundered against Dale Steyn as England descended to an innings defeat in the first Investec Test.
Bell (55) strove with great resolution and skill to try to make up for England's earlier deficiencies against South Africa at the Kia Oval.
But Steyn (five for 56) administered the telling blows with the second new ball shortly before tea on the final day as the tourists surged to a richly-deserved victory by an innings and 12 runs to go 1-0 up with two to play.
Much damage was done to home aspirations at the start of this table-topping series by their first-innings batting, specifically the failure to consolidate after Alastair Cook's hundred, and then an inability to contain South Africa's reply on a flat pitch.
On the back of Hashim Amla's historic triple-century, and hundreds too from captain Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, the tourists piled up an astonishing 637 for two declared.
World number ones England found themselves a vulnerable 102 for four, still 150 behind, as they resumed on a glorious but vexed morning.
In those circumstances, an unlikely escape would have been an uncanny outcome to a match dominated so completely by the tourists for three successive days.
Bell tried to show some British backbone nonetheless.
He dug in, and England retained hope of pulling off another famous rearguard - against opponents they twice denied victory in the drawn 2009/10 series when number 11 Graham Onions blocked out the final overs to secure 'stalemates'.
This time, England were pinning initial hopes on remaining frontline batsmen Bell and Ravi Bopara.
But the fifth-wicket pair, who first joined forces last night, had just completed a 50 stand when Bopara got out in frustrating circumstances for the second time in the match to Steyn.
The number six had contrived to edge a looping bouncer behind as he failed to bail out of a pull shot in the first innings; today, he went after another short ball but edged down on to his stumps as he aimed past point.
Bell would have followed him back on 20, had AB de Villiers held a thin edge behind off a leg-break in Imran Tahir's first over.
He appeared to be in for the long haul, though, dealing stoically with South Africa's powerful and multi-dimensional attack on a surface showing fifth-day wear and tear but by no means unplayable.
While Bell and Matt Prior's sixth-wicket stand of 86 was intact, there was a feasibility about England's survival.
It lasted well into the afternoon, and took the hosts to within 50 runs of making South Africa bat again - as well as containing the moment when Bell completed his four-hour 50 off 189 balls.
Yet just as English supporters were daring to dream, Prior picked the wrong option - stretching for a sweep at Tahir (three for 63) and toe-ending an edge to slip, via wicketkeeper De Villiers.
More than ever, therefore, depended on Bell.
He was reviving memories of his near five hours of resistance in Cape Town when England last defied South Africa two and a half years ago.
But he could not get past the second new ball and Steyn, undone by movement away off the pitch, and the extra pace, with a delivery which appeared to slide off the face of the bat to second slip, where Kallis took his second important catch in the space of half-an-hour.
Steyn doubled up with the wicket of Stuart Broad, caught-behind down the leg-side after a DRS procedure overturned Asad Rauf's initial not-out verdict.
From 210 for eight, with no specialist batsmen left, it therefore appeared only the margin of England's defeat remained to be determined.
So it proved too, appropriate ultimately that the world's premier fast bowler should take three wickets for four runs to help close out South Africa's success and England lost their last five for only 37 on the way to 240 all out - a fair representation of the gulf between these two teams here.