Shane Williams conjured a stunning solo try in the second Test at Loftus Versfeld but it was not enough to prevent Wales slumping to a 37-21 defeat.
Williams showed all his predatory instincts to score from a seemingly impossible position, beating five Springboks on a weaving run to the corner.
Even the home fans had no choice but stand and applaud his 43rd international try, a magical moment that instilled Wales with the belief they could topple the world champions.
Just as important was an opportunist 20th-minute score from scrum-half Gareth Cooper, who showed his own finishing skills to dart over at a vital stage.
Early tries from Jean de Villiers and Ricky Januarie brought back memories of South Africa's 43-17 romp in the opening Test, but Cooper's quick thinking halted the onslaught.
When the hosts slipped into top gear, however, Wales could not compete with de Villiers burrowing over for the decisive score, while Butch James produced another kicking masterclass.
The experiment of playing James Hook at full-back and Jamie Roberts at inside centre yielded little useful information as neither player had a chance to shine.
South Africa targeted Roberts by launching the pacy Bryan Habana and Adrian Jacobs straight at him, but after initial success the ploy failed.
Wales coach Warren Gatland had demanded a vast improvement following the debacle in Bloemfontein and his players delivered with a gutsy and inventive performance.
The nation's search for a first triumph on South African soil continues - they have now lost all eight encounters - but there was much to please Gatland.
The Kiwi had stressed the need to earn the respect of the Springboks from the series and Wales undoubtedly restored the reputation that had been battered at Vodacom Park.
But they were helped by a Springboks side that appeared complacent at times and who had a late try from Bismarck du Plessis to thank for a scoreline that was harsh on the tourists.
Wales' determination to attack the collisions with greater venom was apparent in the opening exchanges.
They were bullied in the contact last weekend and were eager to atone today, with Ryan Jones securing a turnover with some feverish work at the breakdown.
Stephen Jones booted Wales ahead with a penalty but the tourists' were reduced to panic stations shortly after when only timely intervention from Richard Hibbard denied Pierre Spies over the line.
One of the few positives to emerge from the wreckage of Wales' hiding in the opening Test was the scrum, but they were enduing a torrid time in the set piece this afternoon.
Rhys Thomas was coming off worst against Tendai Mtawarira and number eight Gareth Delve found himself driven over the whitewash at one backpedalling scrum.
South Africa were tightening the screw and made the breakthrough in the 12th minute when Jean de Villiers dived over after Spies had won a short-range line-out.
Butch James added the conversion and then slotted a second after a dynamic run from Juan Smith was completed by supporting scrum-half Januarie.
It was worrying times for Wales who were in danger of being overwhelmed by the pace and power of their opponents, but they responded with Cooper's crucial try.
A line-out was thrown to Jonathan Thomas who cleverly picked out an unmarked Cooper on the blindside while still in mid-air.
Seeing his chance, Cooper raced down the touchline before stepping inside winger Tonderai Chavhanga for a superb finish.
Stephen Jones booted the conversion to cut the deficit to 14-10 and in the 32nd minute Wales found themselves ahead thanks to the brilliance of Shane Williams.
The ball squirted free onto the 10-metre line after hooker Hibbard had secured a crucial turnover and Williams pounced did the rest with a sublime piece of finishing.
The Ospreys winger then made a try-saving interception as Bryan Habana fixed his eyes on the whitewash, but Wales slipped behind when James kicked his first penalty on the stroke of half time.
South Africa were rocking early in the second half as the Welsh pounded away close to the line but they managed to break free through de Villiers.
James kicked another penalty but Stephen Jones replied in kind and was involved as Wales sought to take advantage of a creaking home defence.
Jones was on target once again to push the Grand Slam winners 21-20 ahead heading into the final quarter.
But reinforcements arrived from the bench to give the Springboks fresh impetus with Ryan Kankowski, Gurthro Steenkamp and Francois Steyn involved in the build-up as de Villiers powered over for his second.
James converted to compliment two quick-fire penalties, moving South Africa out of range with substitute Plessis completing the victory on the stroke of full time.
After Ireland's heroic big-game hunt of the Springboks and Scotland's six-try runaround of the Pumas, the challenge of engineering the most spectacular win of the autumn series now falls on Wales, writes Peter Jackson.