England (3) 6
South Africa captain John Smit lifts the World Cup in Paris
Pens: Wilkinson 2
South Africa (9) 15
Pens: Montgomery 4, Steyn
South Africa ended England's reign as world champions as they claimed the World Cup for the second time.
Three Percy Montgomery penalties to one from Jonny Wilkinson saw South Africa, who had hammered England in the group stages, lead 9-3 at the break in Paris.
England went desperately close to a try through Mark Cueto soon after half-time before a penalty apiece made it 12-6.
Francois Steyn extended the lead with a long-range penalty and South Africa held out to match their 1995 triumph.
It had been a remarkable run to the final for England, who went into the tournament woefully short of form.
They were humiliated in the group game against the Boks just over five weeks ago and although they finally found some form to reach the final, it was a bridge too far against a superior South Africa side.
The Springboks ruled the line-out through Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith, stealing seven of England's throws, and their defence was all but impeccable throughout the 80 minutes.
After Wilkinson kicked off England enjoyed the early territorial advantage but they could not make it count as they struggled to win their own throw at the line-out.
South Africa's line-out operation had been praised to the skies going into the match and they made their mark immediately, stealing England's first two throws and preventing the champions from building an early head of steam.
When England did manage to win a line-out it was deep in their own half and led to them conceding the lead after Mathew Tait slipped as he tried to run from inside his own 22.
Montgomery, the tournament's leading points scorer, knocked over the easy kick to get the scoreboard ticking over.
England hit back after 13 minutes when South Africa failed to gather a hanging kick.
Massive second row Simon Shaw secured possession and although Bryan Habana halted a sweeping England attack with a thumping tackle on Paul Sackey, South Africa infringed at the ruck.
The penalty was wide out on the right but Wilkinson guided it between the posts to level the scores.
The peerless Matfield ruled the skies in Paris on Saturday night
Both sides were not afraid to use the boot to try and get field position and when Butch James kicked ahead and chased, Lewis Moody, who has struggled at times with his discipline, could not resist tripping the South Africa fly-half.
Montgomery bisected the uprights to edge the Boks back into the lead.
England upped their game and the forwards battered away to create a platform for Wilkinson to drop at goal, but his effort drifted wide.
The champions enjoyed a good spell in the middle of the half but as the break approached South Africa started to assume the upper hand.
They could have extended their lead through a penalty from Steyn, but his long-range effort drifted wide.
The inside centre is only 20 but he did not let it affect his confidence and with five minutes to go to the break he stepped past Mike Catt and beat Wilkinson and Phil Vickery to take the Boks deep into England territory.
The champions managed to halt Springbok captain John Smit a yard from the line but the Boks kept the pressure on and when England desperately infringed Montgomery stepped up to make it 9-3 at the break.
It looked as though South Africa were set to pull away but two minutes after the re-start Tait picked up a bouncing pass from scrum-half Andy Gomarsall in midfield.
The Newcastle man stepped past the on-rushing South Africa midfield and raced deep into South Africa territory before being halted just short of the line.
England went desperately close through winger Mark Cueto
Gomarsall fed the ball wide and Cueto dived over in the corner, but the television match official correctly ruled he had just put a foot in touch as Danie Rossouw got across to make the tackle.
Referee Alain Rolland had been playing advantage and Wilkinson, via the woodwork, brought the gap back to three points from the resulting penalty.
A fourth Montgomery penalty took South Africa back into a six-point lead and England's chances suffered a blow as veteran full-back Jason Robinson was forced off injured.
As the half progressed England, boosted by a host of replacements, looked like they might gain the upper hand but they fell further behind when they were penalised for obstruction as Cueto ran the ball out of defence.
Steyn drilled the ball between the posts from long range and suddenly South Africa led by more than a converted try.
England were never going to give up the fight and they attacked with increasing abandon, but their inability to control their own ball at the line-out and the breakdown ultimately cost them dear.
Every time a white shirt hurled itself at South Africa it was enveloped by a tide of green as the Springboks joined Australia as two-time world champions.
England: Robinson; Sackey, Tait, Catt, Cueto; Wilkinson, Gomarsall, Sheridan, Regan, Vickery, Shaw, Kay, Corry, Moody, Easter.
Replacements: Chuter, Stevens, Dallaglio, Worsley, Richards, Flood, Hipkiss.
South Africa: Montgomery; Pietersen, Fourie, Steyn, Habana; James, Du Preez; Du Randt, Smit, Van der Linde, B Botha, Matfield, Burger, Smith, Rossouw.
Replacements: B du Plessis, J du Plessis, Muller, Van Heerden, Pienaar, Pretorius, Olivier.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)