England's faltering build-up to the 2015 World Cup continued after South Africa inflicted a pressure-building fifth successive defeat on Stuart Lancaster's team.
Twickenham was struck by a local power outage just hours before kick-off, and the lights dimmed on England's autumn campaign with the Springboks prevailing 31-28 seven days after New Zealand had departed London as convincing winners.
The tables appeared to have turned in the space of three second-half minutes when the Red Rose, reeling from Cobus Reinach's dynamic try, replied with bulldozing touch downs by David Wilson and Ben Morgan that were founded on forward power.
South Africa responded almost immediately through Schalk Burger and when hooker Dylan Hartley was sin-binned for stamping, the balance of power had shifted back to the tourists.
A nerve-jangling second-half continued to cause palpitations as England sought the points that would deliver the first victory over the Springboks of Lancaster's reign as head coach.
But it was South Africa who landed the knockout blow through a drop-goal from fly-half Pat Lambie with Brad Barritt's 79th-minute try arriving too late to turn the tide once again.
England's outstanding set piece produced possession throughout, but this was wasted amid a creeping error count that disfigured their gameplan and conceded easy points to opponents ranked second best in the world, but who performed short of that level.
The result extended South Africa's ominous record in the fixture to 11 victories in 12 Tests, a run interrupted only by a 14-14 draw in 2012.
Unless England rescue some meaning from their autumn when they face Australia, who are their Group A rivals at next year's World Cup, the decision to award Lancaster and his assistants extended contracts until 2020 will look hasty.
Tears streamed down the cheek of Billy Vunipola during the national anthem, but for all his emotion he was powered back in an early attack in the first act of another disappointing afternoon from the Saracens number eight
Dazzling footwork saw Kyle Eastmond threaten the line but the momentum was lost when Vunipola spilt forward in the wet conditions as England renewed their assault.
Owen Farrell did his best to gift South Africa a try when he broke from close to his own line before giving full debutant Anthony Watson a hospital pass that saw the Bath wing turned over.
There was little room down the left to exploit but the Springboks conjured a half-chance that ended when Willie le Roux dropped Bryan Habana's pass just five metres out.
England had strayed offside and Lambie kicked the penalty, but in the 16th minute they paid a heavier price for their rising error count.
Just moments after Vunipola had flung out a kamikaze pass, Danny Care looped the ball clear of the breakdown, offering Jan Serfontein an easy intercept and the outside centre cantered home with Lambie converting.
England squandered chances against New Zealand and the same shortcoming was evident when an overlap was wasted with Dave Attwood going it alone instead of feeding the far quicker Watson who would surely have scored.
Only desperate defending in the left corner kept out Jonny May as the Red Rose produced their most fluent attack, but South Africa recovered, worked their way downfield and posted another three points through Lambie's boot.
Trailing 13-6 at the interval after Farrell had kicked a second penalty, England's hopes of forcing themselves back into contention suffered a setback just 43 seconds into the second half.
Lambie's superb side-footed chip over South Africa's backline was gathered by le Roux who drew two defenders before sending Reinach over with Lambie converting.
Seven dramatic minutes later, however, and England had drawn level with two forward-inspired tries scored after Springbok lock Victor Matfield had been sent to the sin-bin.
The first came when a line-out provided the platform for a driving maul that South Africa were powerless to defend as a battalion of white shirts surged over under the posts with Wilson claiming the try.
Three minutes later and they broke through again in a similar fashion, but this time the last few yards were eaten up by the marauding Morgan, who had replaced Vunipola at half-time.
Both conversions were a formality for Farrell before the game produced another twist as South Africa splintered through their opponents with a line-out catch and drive that ended with Burger peeling off and diving over.
An eventful second half continued with Hartley dispatched to the sin bin and England replacing Farrell with George Ford in a bold attempt to unlock the tourists, but it was South Africa's fly-half who had the next say as Lambie sent the ball between the uprights.
Heyneke Meyer had said the game would be decided in the last 10 minutes and the South Africa head coach was proved correct as Ford kicked a penalty to narrow the deficit to 28-23.
The heart-stopping climax continued with the Springboks battering at the white line and being rewarded with a drop goal from Lambie and although Barritt crossed in the final moments, the outcome had already been decided.