England collapsed to 180 all out inside two sessions of the final Test as South Africa fast bowlers Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel shared nine wickets on a rain-shortened first day.
Only a fifth-wicket stand of 76 either side of lunch between England's Cape Town saviours Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell even hinted at worthwhile resistance, the tourists bowled out in 47.5 overs after choosing to bat first on a pacy Wanderers pitch.
There was then time only for South Africa to reply with 29 for none as rain and bad light wiped out all but 12 overs of the evening session.
England lost captain Andrew Strauss to the first ball of the match and Jonathan Trott to the final ball of the second over - and, with Steyn (five for 51) and Morkel (three for 39) refusing to release their grip, there proved to be no way back.
Strauss did not do a great deal wrong, falling to an astounding catch at short-leg by Hashim Amla off Steyn.
He pushed a length ball off the face of the bat from which he could have expected to collect a couple of runs. But Amla dived to his right to take a one-handed catch and give South Africa a flying start to a match they must win.
After two overs of a contest in which England need only a draw to complete a famous series victory, they were seven for two.
Unwelcome memories were inevitably stirred of the 1999-2000 tour, when England lurched to two for four in the first Test on the way to an innings defeat on this ground.
It was not so bad this time but nonetheless hardly the start England needed.
Trott concluded a fretful, eight-ball innings when he played across a full-length ball to go lbw to Morkel.
Kevin Pietersen then mis-pulled Morkel, presenting an easy catch to mid-on, and Alastair Cook was given out lbw by umpire Tony Hill - and third official Daryl Harper, after a DRS appeal.
Despite video evidence that suggested Morkel was mighty close to overstepping, Harper ruled the delivery was legitimate and Cook had to go to one that pitched just on leg-stump and straightened enough to have hit.
England's dressing room appeared aghast at the outcome, although it was arguably a case of a series of marginal calls all correctly going against the batsman.
After requesting a viewing of the footage via the match referee, England decided they were happy with the decision-making process.
It was the first true 'wicket' ball to do damage.
But there was enough in the surface and atmosphere to make batting tough and, in the circumstances, even allowing for the release of pressure after a double change to debutants Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell bowling in tandem, Bell and Collingwood served England well.
Collingwood, who had got moving with two fours in three balls off Steyn, also hooked Parnell and then Jacques Kallis for memorable sixes.
The second came from the last ball of an eventful first session, bookended by Strauss' instant wicket and a maximum that brought up England's hundred.
Collingwood lasted only five overs after lunch, though, going three short of his 50 via a leading edge to gully as McLaren got one to hold up from a leg-and-middle line.
Bell was gone soon afterwards, Steyn returning from the Corlett Drive end with a perfectly-disguised delivery that snaked back between bat and pad.
When Steyn bagged his third wicket, Matt Prior gloving an attempted hook behind, three big blows had been dealt at the cost of only 21 runs.
Only the tail was left. But Graeme Swann helped to add a handy 44 for the final three wickets, including 25 for the 10th with James Anderson, before Steyn completed his five-wicket haul to give himself the full set against each of South Africa's Test-playing opponents.
The England attack could not then afford to let the home batsmen settle, nor allow themselves to be over-excited at the prospect of seam and swing movement and telling carry.
In the time available between breaks for the poor weather, the evidence in favourable bowling conditions suggested they were reading the right script as Graeme Smith and Ashwell Prince were each beaten several times - without reward - and neither was given easy scoring opportunities.