Graeme Smith was overjoyed after leading South Africa to their first victory at The Oval in his 100th Test appearance.
England had finished day one on 267-3 thanks to an Alastair Cook century but the Proteas hit back on day two to bowl them out for 385 - and continued to dominate for the remainder of the match.
Hashim Amla became the first South African triple centurion, finishing 311 not out in a total of 637-2 declared, Smith and Jacques Kallis also scoring hundreds.
And the tourists completed their win by an innings and 12 runs on the final day, Dale Steyn taking 5-56 to end England's hopes of salvaging a draw.
"It's certainly an extremely proud moment for all of us to have achieved a Test victory in the first Test of what is a big series and play as well as we have," Smith said.
"In the context of the first innings to come back and win the game is an incredible achievement.
"I don't think we were that terrible on day one when we lacked a little bit of that x-factor but we found that on day two.
"The conditions on that morning suited us but we found an intensity that we lacked a little bit on day one.
"We got a couple of plans right on day two and all credit to our bowlers, they set the tone for us in this Test match and managed to finish it off on a really good batting wicket."
Amla was keen to hail the contributions of Smith and Kallis and his team's bowlers after picking up his man-of-the-match award.
"I'm obviously very excited and grateful for the opportunity to be able to contribute and get a big score like that, but you can never do it alone and fortunately Graeme and Jacques were with me to guide me along, so it was a lovely experience for myself," said Amla.
He added of veteran all-rounder Kallis: "Everybody has taken a lot from Jacques. Obviously he's a very experienced guy, so we've taken a lot from him.
"And credit to our bowlers in this particular match, the wicket was good to bat on and they did a fantastic job for us."
Steyn was grateful for the overcast conditions on the second morning, which he pinpointed as the turning point.
"After day one, we were probably thinking 'how can we get a couple more wickets"', Steyn said.
"The important thing was, I don't think England got away from us. They'd scored around 3.6 (runs per over) so we always knew that day two, the morning was pretty important to us and if we got a few wickets we could be back in the game.
"We had a little bit of luck. There was some overcast conditions and the ball did move around a little bit.
"And we got lucky with a couple of wickets. A drag on from Cookie, who'd done pretty well the day before so I suppose that morning set it up for us."