But after playing 18 Twenty20 internationals this was the lowest total recorded by England, and it renewed fears that Paul Collingwood's side lack the skills required to threaten the best teams in the shortest format of the game.
England must now beat India on Sunday, and West Indies the following day, but even two positive results would not necessarily be enough to put the hosts into the semi-finals.
In the first over of England's innings, Ravi Bopara left a couple of Dale Steyn deliveries outside the off-stump, then threw his hands at the last ball.
But Steyn had deceived the right-hander by taking the pace off the delivery, and Bopara tamely inside-edged onto his stumps.
Kevin Pietersen crashed boundaries off his first two balls but hit an Albie Morkel full toss down to Roelof van der Merwe at mid-on, and the fielder dived to his left to take a stunning catch.
The wicket, which came in the sixth over, was the first maiden of the tournament and England's total at the end of it was 25-3, Luke Wright having already departed. No team had scored fewer in the powerplay section.
Collingwood and Owais Shah then struggled to take runs off the spinners, as Van der Merwe and Johan Botha did a fine job on a dry wicket.
South Africa celebrate during their rout of England at Trent Bridge
But with the overs drifting by - only 47 came from the first 10 - someone had to take risks.
Shah finally struck a couple of sixes, but Collingwood then lost two of his stumps to a Jacques Kallis delivery that he could have hit for four and in the next over James Foster was caught attempting a reverse sweep.
Suddenly, England's lower order was rudely exposed and there was only one more boundary from the last five overs - courtesy of Stuart Broad.
Wayne Parnell, the exciting new weapon in South Africa's pace arsenal, wound up with 3-14, bowling Broad and James Anderson with consecutive balls - and all in all it had been a very satisfactory showing from Graeme Smith's bowlers.
But his batsmen, who managed just 128 batting first against New Zealand, produced an anxious chase in the early part of their innings.
Smith top-edged Broad to James Foster, who had to dive to take the skier, and Herschelle Gibbs looked out of sorts - and could have been run out twice.
Against England's spinners, the required rate drifted to more than a run a ball. That was until Kallis, finally getting the loose ball he needed, deposited Adil Rashid for six over deep midwicket.
Any pressure there had been was released, and even Gibbs middled a few, taking Swann high over long-on for another maximum.
The Notts spinner exacted some revenge when turning one under Gibbs's attempted cut, but the job was almost done and when Kallis passed 50 by driving a Broad full-toss behind point for four, just 13 were needed from the final 24 balls.
Rashid enhanced his claims for England selection across the other formats with a lovely bit of slow bowling that saw South Africa's in-form AB de Villiers caught at slip.
But the game ended when Kallis cut Anderson to the point fence to end up with 58 from 49 balls.
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