Sibusiso Nkosi scored the only try of the match, but South Africa’s Northern Hemisphere tour got off to a losing start at Twickenham on Saturday.
The Springboks, who led 8-6 at halftime, went down 12-11 to England in a match that will be remembered for the brutal physicality shown by both teams, particularly in the forwards.
South Africa took the game to their opponents for most of the game and will be left wondering how they were left with so little after giving so much.
The Boks domination was writ large in the possession and territory statistics, but not on the scoreboard.
England showed more creativity in the second half, but they were more than matched by the Boks’ Herculean defensive effort.
The first half was blighted by England’s paucity of ideas and South Africa’s inability to follow through on theirs.
Time and again, the Springboks forged promisingly into the home side’s half only to knock on or waste lineout throws. Once, they blew a tighthead in the 22.
Consequently, the only scoring in the first half-hour was a pair of penalties by flyhalves Handré Pollard and Owen Farrell, and that despite England lock Maro Itoje spending 10 minutes in the sin bin.
But the Boks mounted the pressure and pinned England in their 22, and with seven minutes left in the half right wing Nkosi smashed through the defence to score.
Pollard missed the conversion to take the teams to halftime with the visitors leading 8-6.
England emerged for the second half with a more creative approach, but South Africa’s defence held firm.
Fullback Elliot Daly put England ahead for the first time in the 51st with a 49-metre penalty and they would have stretched their lead had Farrell’s attempt in the 62nd not hit the upright below the crossbar.
Pollard reclaimed the advantage in the 68th only for Farrell to wrest it back in the 72nd.
The Bok flyhalf had the chance to nudge the his team ahead in the 77th, but another long-range effort went just wide.
South Africa play France at Stade de France next Saturday before taking on Scotland at Murrayfield and Wales at the Principality Stadium.
Saturday’s result was their sixth loss in 11 games this year.