Vickery's try sparked joyous scenes
England: (6) 23
Tries: Cueto, Vickery
Cons: Goode 2
Pens: Hodgson 2, Goode
South Africa: (13) 21
Tries: De Villiers, Ndungane
Pens: James 2
Phil Vickery's try with seven minutes left helped England beat South Africa at Twickenham and avoid the ignominy of a record eighth successive defeat.
Trailing 18-6 early in the second half, and 21-13 after an hour, Andy Goode's penalty brought them close before fellow replacement Vickery scored.
Goode converted to put England in front and they held out - to huge relief.
South Africa scored tries through Butch James and Akona Ndungane but Mark Cueto's try ignited a late fightback.
If that score owed a good deal to fortune, after Goode lost the ball over the line, head coach Andy Robinson will take much from England's spirit in the last half-hour, even if their play continued to lack precision or penetration.
They got off to an ideal start with a well-struck Charlie Hodgson penalty in the second minute, but Martin Corry immediately surrendered the initiative.
The England captain promised beforehand his side would "make it physical", but he was lucky to escape a yellow card for a crude late hit on Springboks fly-half James, who picked himself up to level the scores.
Hodgson missed a further penalty chance and South Africa should have taken the lead in the 13th minute when Jean de Villiers intercepted a Hodgson pass on his own 22.
The centre was hauled into touch by a thundering tackle from England full-back Josh Lewsey, but with Pierre Spies on his inside in support, it should have been a try.
England responded with the impressive Tom Palmer stealing a Springboks line-out and then winning his own, South Africa conceding a penalty that Hodgson landed for a 6-3 lead.
But the hosts, already split open by Ndungane's burst through the midfield channel, proceeded to surrender their slim advantage with some woeful kicking.
First Cueto failed to find touch, then Lewsey's poor punt found Steyn, who landed a superb drop-goal from 45m.
Lewsey partially atoned with a second try-saving tackle, this time on Steyn, but then conceded a penalty for holding on at the tackle after another backline move failed to click.
Steyn missed on that occasion but another poor kick put South Africa back on the attack, and De Villiers' run and off-load sent over James, who converted for a 13-6 lead.
James missed another long-range penalty with the last kick of the half, by which time Hodgson had departed with a knee injury, replaced by Goode.
Things got worse from an England perspective on the resumption when a delicate James chip to the line was plundered by Ndungane for an 18-6 lead.
The visitors lost De Villiers to the sin-bin for killing the ball, and England did take advantage - albeit fortuitously - when Goode lost the ball over the line, but it fell backwards and Cueto pounced.
Goode's conversion made it 13-18, but James stretched the Springboks' lead with another penalty before being replaced by Andre Pretorius.
Another Goode penalty with 12 minutes left gave England hope, and Vickery barged his way over after a desperate assault on the Springboks' line.
Goode's conversion put England in front but they still had seven minutes to hold out.
The tension reached breaking point before referee Steve Walsh blew his whistle, and Twickenham breathed a collective sigh of relief.
England: Lewsey; Cueto, Tait, Noon, Cohen; Hodgson, Richards; Sheridan, Chuter, White, Palmer, Kay, Worsley, Sanderson, Corry.
Replacements: Mears, Vickery, Jones, Moody, Perry, Goode, Flood.
South Africa: Steyn; Ndungane, Olivier, De Villiers, Habana; James, Januarie; Van der Linde, Smit (capt), Botha, Ackermann, Muller, Spies, Rossouw, Cronje.
Replacements: Ralepelle, Carstens, Van den Berg, Lobberts, Pienaar, A Pretorius, Fortuin.