Vernon Philander took five wickets as South Africa replaced England as the world's number one Test side with a 51-run win in the third Test at Lord's on Monday.
England set 346 for victory, were dismissed for 294 on Monday's final day as South Africa took the three-match series 2-0.
Man-of-the-match Philander wrapped up the contest with two wickets in two balls to finish with five for 30 after Matt Prior had threatened to lead England to an improbable victory with a dashing 73.
History was against England as the most they had ever made in the fourth innings to win a Test was the 332 for seven they posted against Australia at Melbourne back in 1928/29.
Seam bowler Philander had removed England captain Andrew Strauss, in his 100th Test, and fellow left-handed opener Alastair Cook late Sunday to reduce the hosts to 16 for two at the fourth day's close.
Philander struck again early Monday when he had Ian Bell caught, at the second attempt, for his overnight score of four by Proteas captain Graeme Smith at first slip.
The last thing England needed then was a run out but confusion between Jonathan Trott and James Taylor over a fourth run saw the latter dismissed after Hashim Amla's throw was relayed by Dale Steyn to wicket-keeper AB de Villiers.
Jonathan Bairstow, who made a gallant 95 after coming in at 54 for four in the first innings, walked out to bat Monday with England in an even worse position at 45 for four. But he showed his class with several boundaries off fast bowler Steyn.