Newcastle - Scotland coach Vern Cotter paid credit to South Africa after his side succumbed to a 34-16 loss at St James' Park on Saturday.
As it happened: South Africa v Scotland
Handre Pollard kicked 19 points while Schalk Burger, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana all scored tries in a lively Pool B encounter in front of more than 50 000 people at Newcastle.
It was the first defeat in the tournament for the Scots and for South Africa it made their pathway from Pool B to the play-offs more clear even though they did not get a bonus point.
The Springboks need just a win over the United States to go through.
"Hats off to South Africa," said Scotland's coach Vern Cotter after the defeat.
"They played very well."
Scotland must beat Samoa next week to go into the quarter finals and Cotter was happy to get seven days to prepare.
"There are a few things to sort out," he said.
But South Africa's opening loss to Japan has been put behind them as they improved to two wins from three games, the same as Scotland. Japan beat Samoa 26-5 earlier to stay in the Pool B qualifying race.
Scrum-half Fourie du Preez, stepping up to captain South Africa after the inspirational Jean de Villiers suffered a career ending broken jaw against Samoa, directed play with surety.