A tense arm wrestle delivered its critical moment in the 66th minute when Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am combined brilliantly down the left wing for the first of the Springboks’ two tries.
England’s defence was unlocked by the speed and accuracy of a move that saw Mapimpi cross to become the first Springbok to score a try in a World Cup final, although there was also a hint of a forward pass.
And with Eddie Jones’ men forcing their attack in desperate pursuit of an unlikely comeback win, wing Cheslin Kolbe switched on the afterburners to deliver the knockout punch with six minutes remaining.
The victory maintains South Africa’s 100 per cent record in finals and enables Siya Kolisi’s team to join the famed Springboks of 1995 and 2007.
After flying out of the blocks against New Zealand a week earlier, England were ambushed by South Africa’s instant ferocity and never truly recovered.
Seeing prop Kyle Sinckler knocked out inside three minutes and unable to return was a savage setback - but it was only the beginning of their problems as panic swept through Red Rose ranks.
Nowhere was the vulnerability more evident than at the scrum where Tendai Mtawarira tormented Sinckler’s replacement Dan Cole to win a series of penalties that placed South Africa in full command.
In recognition of the set-piece decimation, George Kruis was summoned into the second row to add ballast and while that made no difference, the arrival of Joe Marler brought a form of parity.
The damage had been done, however, and despite the valiant efforts of the Vunipola brothers, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Maro Itoje, England eventually fell apart as the heroics on display against the All Blacks became a distant memory.
South Africa had a laser-guided kicker in Handre Pollard to capitalise fully on the set-piece control, while Owen Farrell landed four penalties for the pre-match favourites, who have now lost in the final on three occasions.
England: Daly, Watson, Tuilagi, Farrell, May, Ford, Youngs, M. Vunipola, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Lawes, Curry, Underhill, B. Vunipola. Replacements: Joseph for May (70), Slade for Ford (50), Spencer for Youngs (76), Cowan-Dickie for George (60), Cole for Sinckler (3), Wilson for Underhill (60). Not Used: Marler, Kruis.
Pens: Farrell 4.
South Africa: le Roux, Kolbe, Am, de Allende, Mapimpi, Pollard, de Klerk, Mtawarira, Mbonambi, Malherbe, Etzebeth, De Jager, Kolisi, P. du Toit, Vermeulen. Replacements: Steyn for le Roux (68), H. Jantjies for de Klerk (77), Kitshoff for Mtawarira (44), Marx for Mbonambi (22), Koch for Malherbe (44), Snyman for Etzebeth (60), Mostert for De Jager (22), Louw for Kolisi (64).
Tries: Mapimpi, Kolbe. Cons: Pollard 2; Pens: Pollard 6.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).