Alastair Cook’s side capitulated with the bat in a dismal showing as the hosts were bowled out for a paltry 182 inside 46 overs, and it was never going to be a competitive total on a perfectly acceptable wicket in Nottingham.
South Africa lost three quick wickets in their reply, but an imperious 97 from man-of-the-series Hashim Amla and 75 from captain AB de Villiers in an unbeaten partnership of 172 runs saw the tourists to their target with over 15 overs to spare.
England remain top of the world rankings in the 50-over format despite being thrashed in the fifth ODI, but it was a dispiriting showing for Cook’s team, who came into the match looking to clinch a series victory.
Only captain Cook, with 51, and all-rounder Chris Woakes, who was unbeaten on 33, took any credit from their efforts with the bat after the England captain had won the toss and surprised his opposite number by electing to bat first.
South Africa had their hosts two down very swiftly for the addition of just one run, in the fourth and fifth overs, with de Villiers having revealed that he would have chosen to bowl regardless in the day-night fixture.
England looked to have made a solid start until Ian Bell missed an arm ball that zipped on from Robin Peterson, who finished with three for 37, and he was trapped lbw with Kumar Dharmasena's decision confirmed after a DRS review.
Ravi Bopara, controversially elevated to number three in the absence of the injured Jonathan Trott, continued his wretched run of form with the bat as he tentatively edged a seemingly innocuous delivery from Dale Steyn outside his off stump, behind to de Villiers. It was the third successive time in the series that he had departed for a single-figure score.
Jonny Bairstow - called up for his first one-day international cap since last October – initially fared well in a 55-run stand with Cook, but departed when well set as he picked out deep square-leg off Morne Morkel.
Eoin Morgan, so often England’s saviour from difficult situations, mishit his second delivery, from JP Duminy, straight to mid-on where Amla was able to take a comfortable catch, and suddenly the hosts were reeling.
Cook, who had looked very comfortable at the crease, lost his focus against part-time leg spinner Faf du Plessis as he prodded a low full-toss straight back to the bowler, who was able to collect a routine return catch.
Wicketkeeper Craig Kieswetter miscued an attempted slog off Morkel and skied a catch to Amla again at mid-off, after Samit Patel had gloved a slower-ball bouncer from Steyn behind.
It got worse still for England as the tail proceeded to implode, and Peterson finished with two wickets in two balls as not even Woakes' career-best 33 not out could salvage a respectable total for his side.
Tredwell was clean bowled by Peterson for just six, before James Anderson inexplicably attempted to dart down the wicket and slog his first delivery and was duly caught by Morkel as he skied his ill-advised shot. Dernbach was then the last to fall as he was caught behind off the bowling of seamer Wayne Parnell.
It was the first time England have been bowled out batting first at home in a one-day international since 2009.
South Africa's reply was almost immediately undermined as former skipper Graeme Smith departed for just one, caught by Tredwell at second slip off Dernbach.
The out-of-form number three, du Plessis, promptly edged behind to the wicketkeeper off a fired up Anderson, and the visitors found themselves in early trouble 14 for three in the fifth over after Anderson also dismissed the unconvincing Dean Elgar for a 10-ball one.
But Amla and de Villiers always looked assured in partnership as they joined forces after 15 overs, the tourists' most accomplished batsmen proceeded to take the game away from their resurgent hosts.
Amla struck nine fours and a six as his innings came at a strike rate of 90.65, and de Villiers was even more aggressive as his 75 came off just 79 balls and included 10 boundaries.
The pair never looked like getting out as England’s bowlers toiled under the lights and an increasingly raucous crowd, and victory was clinched after just 34.3 overs.
It was a chastening defeat for England as South Africa coasted to their target with alarming ease, but Cook was at least left to reflect on a tied series which sees England remain top of the world rankings.
- Hashim Amla
- South Africa