France exited the World Cup at the first round stage with barely a whimper after this humbling defeat by the host nation at the Free State Stadium.
On a day of drama Raymond Domenech stripped Patrice Evra of the captaincy and handed the armband to Alou Diarra instead.
Then the coach, set to be replaced by Laurent Blanc, saw his side reduced to 10 men after 26 minutes of this Group A game when Yoann Gourcuff was sent off.
South Africa took advantage with Bongani Khumalo and Katlego Mphela both finding the target.
Although Florent Malouda stepped off the bench to pull a goal back France are heading home early.
Evra was dropped after the squad boycotted a training session after striker Nicolas Anelka was expelled following a row with Domenech.
The Manchester United full-back cut a lonely figure on the bench on another dreadful day for France.
Yet they could have opened the scoring in the third minute when Gourcuff released Andre-Pierre Gignac. He had a clear sight of goal but only succeeded in drilling a shot into the arms of Moneeb Josephs.
France were rocked in the 20th minute when South Africa made the breakthrough, which led to pandemonium in the stadium.
Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris failed to cut out a corner from Siphiwe Tshabalala and Khumalo took advantage to score with a header at the back post.
It might have been worse for the former world champions five minutes later but Mphela dragged a shot narrowly wide of the post.
France's troubles increased, however in the 26th minute when they were reduced to 10 men with Gourcuff sent off by Colombian referee Oscar Ruiz for an aerial challenge on Macbeth Sibaya.
Domenech could not believe what was happening and held his head in frustration at seeing his side down on numbers.
South Africa were growing in confidence and Tshabalala whipped a free-kick over the bar in the 34th minute before they extended their lead three minutes later.
Mphela clipped the ball home after being sent up by Bernard Parker with France in disarray at the back.
Steven Pienaar then found the net for South Africa but his effort was disallowed and Mphela saw his shot turned around the post by Lloris.
Malouda was introduced at the start of the second half but France were soon pegged back. Parker sent his shot into arms of Lloris and Mphela's effort clipped the outside of the post.
France could not contain Mphela and the goalkeeper did well to push away his powerful drive in the 58th minute.
However South Africa were caught napping in the 70th minute and failed to track Malouda, who pulled a goal back following a cross from Franck Ribery.
That was as good as it got for France, whose only point in the group came against Uruguay.
It was a bitter sweet win for South Africa as they have become the first host nation to be eliminated at the first round stage of the finals.