Dale Steyn, Johan Botha and Robin Peterson were all superb as England were restricted to 118 for seven after being sent in to bat.
South Africa were in early trouble in their reply, sinking to 29 for three before Jacques Kallis and JP Duminy killed England’s hopes with a record, unbeaten fourth-wicket stand of 90 off 90 balls.
Kallis played with typical composure, breezing to 48 not out off 44 balls, with seven fours, while Duminy handled the pressure with ease and scored 47 not out off 54 balls, collecting four fours and impressing with some clever improvisations.
Defending such a meagre total, England had to strike with the new ball and they did.
Richard Levi would have sent some chills through the home camp with two flat-batted boundaries in Steven Finn’s first over, but Jade Dernbach removed the powerful opener in his first over, caught at slip as the bowler gave him no width to work with.
The out-of-form Faf du Plessis was caught cold and trapped in front for four by Finn in the third over, but AB de Villiers played a couple of glorious strokes in scoring 10 off six balls.
But he then tried to play an ambitious square-drive off Dernbach, the ball being too full and too straight for the shot, and De Villiers was caught behind.
South Africa were in serious trouble on 29 for three in the fourth over, but they had the ideal batsmen in, with Kallis the ultimate accumulator and Duminy a busy player who can keep the scoreboard ticking over without taking too many risks.
They cashed in when Ravi Bopara was brought on, Kallis collecting successive boundaries in the seventh over, but they were content to see Graeme Swann off, the off-spinner conceding just 16 runs in his four overs.
Duminy collected successive boundaries off left-arm spinner Samit Patel in the 11th over with innovative reverse-paddles and victory was achieved in the 19th over.
Steyn and South Africa’s spin pairing of Botha and Peterson had earlier restricted England to a miserable 118 for seven.
WICKETS AT REGULAR INTERVALS
Only a couple of England batsmen looked threatening as South Africa, having won the toss, produced a superb performance in the field with their impressive bowlers taking wickets at regular intervals.
Openers Alex Hales (11) and Kieswetter (25) gave England a solid enough start of 27 runs in 3.4 overs, but Botha and Peterson ripped through the middle order and Steyn was magnificent, grabbing only one wicket but conceding just 13 runs in his four overs.
The first wicket came via a run out as Hales came charging down the pitch for a quick single, Kieswetter ignored him and Kallis scored a direct hit running in from midwicket.
Botha has not played for South Africa for five months but the off-spinner immediately showed that he will considerably boost their chances of winning the ICC World T20 in Sri Lanka later this month as he claimed two for 19 in four overs.
Botha’s first ball spun sharply to trap Kieswetter lbw for 25 and South Africa captain De Villiers went on to the attack to further pressure England and make a mockery of their decision to bat the out-of-form Bopara at three.
Steyn returned to target Bopara, De Villiers put a slip in and the batsman rewarded their bravery outside the powerplay by edging the ball straight to Botha to be caught for just six.
Botha and Peterson troubled England with their changes of pace as much as anything on a sticky pitch. Bopara’s dismissal left the hosts on 50 for three in the eighth over, but their middle-order just faded away.
Their best batsman, Eoin Morgan, bottom-edged a sweep at a quicker delivery from Botha into his stumps to be bowled for 10, and young Jos Buttler (6) was bowled by Peterson as the canny left-arm spinner held the ball back beautifully and the batsman was through with his drive way too early.
Jonny Bairstow (15) impetuously holed out at long-on off Albie Morkel and when Peterson had Patel caught at long-off for four, the veteran Kallis taking a sprightly catch running in from the boundary, South Africa’s old problem of death bowling didn’t really matter with England 85 for seven.
Stuart Broad and Swann both scored 18 not out as they added 33 for the eighth wicket but the home side were never going to be favourites after that batting display.