A Vernon Philander-inspired South Africa took victory and the number one Test ranking despite some late heroics from Matt Prior and England's lower order on a thrilling final day.
South Africa, 309 & 351, beat England 315 & 294, by 51 runs
England looked all set to crumble to a convincing defeat when they lost two early wickets, before a brilliant cameo from Jonny Bairstow and a half century from Jonathan Trott gave them some respectability.
South Africa rallied after Lunch, removing them both in quick succession but Prior - who made a wonderful 73 - teamed up with first Stuart Broad and then Graeme Swann to suddenly reignite hopes of winning the Test and saving their number one ranking.
There was drama late on when Prior was recalled after being dismissed when a replay showed Morne Morkel had overstepped, but the brilliant man-of-the-match Vernon Philander dismissed Prior and Steven Finn in successive balls to wrap up a scintillating Test match.
Ebb and flow
England's disastrous start to their chase on the fourth evening put even more pressure on them to have a good first hour. But they were greeted with muggy, bowler-friendly conditions and a South African attack ready for the kill.
Ian Bell scratched around without adding a run before he became Philander's third victim, edging a back-foot drive to first slip where the captain Graeme Smith took the catch with his second attempt.
James Taylor played watchfully, aware that he has fallen back below Bairstow in the Test pecking order, and he will have been distraught at the manner of his dismissal. Steyn was flicked nicely through mid wicket and as Taylor turned and called for a fourth run, Trott appeared to be ball-watching. After hesitating, he refused the run, leaving Taylor comfortably short of his ground.
That brought Bairstow to the crease. This may have been a disappointing result for England but a star has undoubtedly been born in the shape of the redheaded Yorkshireman. Whereas his first innings effort was characterised by his bravery in the face of a bouncer barrage, today's effort was almost its antithesis.
Kevin Pietersen might not have been there, but the manner in which Bairstow raised the tempo of the innings with a selection of glorious shots - the best of which a bullet straight drive all along the floor off Steyn - was reminiscent of England's estranged batsman.
A crowd of around 11,500, many of whom had arrived very early to secure the best seats, had been fearful of a rather shortened day, but Bairstow quickly made the £20 adult ticket prices (children under 16 entered for free) seem worth it.
Jonathan Trott benefitted from the urgency at the other end, and their 50 partnership was reached in just 52 balls before the Lunch interval. Bairstow fell victim to the largely ineffective Imran Tahir shortly after the break, ending even the most optimistic predictions of a home victory, but his efforts in this Test will live long in the memory.
Trott was stunningly caught by a diving Jacques Kallis shortly afterwards, but Broad and Prior kept up the entertainment. Steyn was hit for a huge six when he dropped short to Broad, the stroke earning a standing ovation from the Grand Stand as it sailed over their heads and into the hospitality boxes. A 50 partnership blossomed before Broad hooked Kallis and Amla took a good catch at fine-leg.
Graeme Swann looked in superb touch in the first innings and he continued that form. Joining Prior with the target still well over 100, they thrilled the crowd with a combination of switch-hits, reverse sweeps, drives and pulls which included a spell of 73 runs in 10 overs as it rained sixes and fours - Tahir in particular taking some stick.
The obituaries which had been penned in the J.P. Morgan Media Centre were starting to look premature when disaster struck. Swann sliced a Tahir ball to backward-point and was slow to set off as Prior called for a single. The throw to Tahir was poor, but he skilfully threw the ball onto the stumps; Swann out by inches.
Was that the end of the drama? Of course not. The match seemed well and truly over moments later when Prior - desperate to plunder as many runs as he could before the new ball was taken - skied one off Morkel to deep cover. JP Duminy held his nerve to take the catch, but with the batsman practically in the Long Room a cheer of gargantuan standards went up as the big screen showed Morkel's delivery had been a no ball.
Prior returned and survived by the skin of his teeth in the following over as well. Tahir was given one last bowl with the old ball by Smith and seemed to have Prior stumped by de Villiers. Replays showed a seriously close call, but it was the batsman who was favoured by the TV official Rod Tucker.
James Anderson has the ability to hang around for long periods, but the arrival of the second new ball slowed the run rate and increased the chance of wickets. Prior's luck finally ran out when Philander had him caught low by Smith at slip and the win and Philander's place on the Honours Boards were wrapped up next ball when Finn was caught at second slip.