However, strength and physicality of the English pack proved to be the difference as they turned on the style in the final quarter.
England had made life difficult for themselves in the first half despite opening up a 9-0 lead through three Tom Homer penalties.
A lack of precision at the set piece kept South Africa in the game as scrums lost against the head, including two 5 metres from the Boks' line, and a series of lineouts were ruled not straight.
But more costly was the charge down of scrum half Ben Youngs clearance kick which resulted in a try for number eight Christiaan Stander.
And, this was compounded as Francois Brummer kicked a penalty on the stroke of half time to send South Africa into the interval with an 11-9 lead.
England struck early in the second period through Youngs to open up a 16-11 lead and looked well set with Henry Trinder becoming increasingly influential with a series of strong runs.
England turned down a kickable penalty but lost a close range lineout and disaster struck as South Africa were gifted a second score when Charlie Sharples couldn't deal with a difficult grubber kick and Nicolaas Hanekom hacked on to score.
Brummer slotted an easy penalty and things looked grim going into the final quarter but England produced a great response as James Gaskell picked up a pass on his toes and powered his way over through several despairing tackles. Homer's conversion nudged England back in front 23-21.
The momentum continued to go with England as South African flanker Rynhardt Elstadt was sent off for a spear tackle and Homer's penalty made it 26-21.
Lawes powered over from close range to give England breathing space and Trinder capped an excellent performance with a superb angle of Luke Eves' pass and side step to score and seal the win.