South Africa dominated the first half and had stretched their lead to 28-10 after 47 minutes before England clawed their way back to 31-27 down with 15 minutes remaining. But their comeback was truncated when Pietersen set off from his own half on a mazy run, bumping off defenders, and putting the Springboks on attack. After several phases and a strong drive by eighthman Pierre Spies, the ball went quickly wide for Pietersen to dive over for the match-winning try.
The Springbok forwards had pounded England with their direct, powerful running in the first half, earning tries for bruising flank Willem Alberts, hooker Bismarck du Plessis and scrumhalf Francois Hougaard.
South Africa led 22-3 after the first quarter and, facing the sternest examination at a daunting Highveld venue, England showed their character by fighting back through two tries by scrumhalf Ben Youngs and one by flyhalf Toby Flood, who also scored three conversions and two penalties in a faultless goal-kicking display.
But the single moment of magic of Pietersen denied England the reward of a sensational comeback victory.
South Africa’s physical dominance was obvious from the outset as they held the ball through 12 phases after the kickoff, bashing their way to within a couple of metres from the tryline before the ball was knocked-on.
England dominated the resulting scrum, referee Alain Rolland failing to penalise the going-to-ground of the Springbok front row, and the lack of control of the ball led to it popping out, Alberts picking up and scoring the simplest of tries in the fourth minute.
The strong driving and direct running of the Springboks soon had them back on attack and Du Plessis was driven over from close range for the second try in the eighth minute.
England then showed some mettle with ball in hand as they stretched the Springbok defence, fullback Pat Lambie making a crucial tackle in the last line of defence to prevent a try, but the visitors did earn a penalty soon afterwards, which Flood kicked (3-12).
A great pass over the top from inside centre Francois Steyn to wing Pietersen, whose clever chip had England scrambling in their 22, forced Youngs to carry the ball over his own line as he could not escape from Springbok captain Jean de Villiers. From the five-metre scrum, South Africa earned a penalty, which Morne Steyn kicked in the 16th minute (15-3).
The Springboks earned a third try five minutes later after another spell of top-class driving by the forwards created a gap close to the line which scrumhalf Hougaard spotted.
England, 22-3 down, finally notched a try in the 24th minute after they were awarded a ruck penalty in midfield. The awareness of Young and wing Chris Ashton, bursting through to take the pass, created the space for Flood to run in the try, which he converted.
Morne Steyn added a well-taken drop goal in the 28th minute, but England were alive, only just, at 10-25 down at the break.
But South Africa lost some core players in the second half due to injury, most notably Alberts, who put his body on the line in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stop Youngs from scoring his first try, after Du Plessis had overthrown a lineout.
The Springboks will also be disappointed that basic mistakes crept into their game in the second half, and England were able to punish them.
Their scrum regained their pride by earning a couple of penalties, one of which was in range for Flood, and the lineout then got their rolling maul going to allow Youngs to dive over for his second try to close the gap to 22-31 with 16 minutes remaining.
Flood kicked the conversion and almost immediately followed up with a long-range penalty as England began playing with more and more confidence.
But Pietersen than came up with his game-changing run and England were left with more work still to do before next weekend’s final Test.
South Africa – Tries: Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Hougaard, JP Pietersen. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalties: Steyn (3). Drop goal: Steyn.
England – Tries: Toby Flood, Ben Youngs (2). Conversions: Flood (3). Penalties: Flood (2).