Despite stand-in skipper Victor Matfield's insistence before the game his side would be 'merciless' against an Italian side short of 13 first-choice players, they lacked rhythm and precision at sea level.
The wet conditions in Cape Town may well have been a contributory factor to a poor performance, but the stubborn Italian resistance was certainly another.
A brilliant solo, chip and chase score from outside half Francois Steyn got the Boks off to a solid start and then Bismark du Plessis was driven over from close range. But those tries, both converted by Steyn, were the only points in an otherwise disjointed first half.
It didn't help the home cause that No 8 Ryan Kankowski was taken off on a stretcher after a nasty clash of heads with Italian lock Carlo del Fava just before the break. Del Fava spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle.
Kankowski's early departure allowed Joe van Niekirk to taste his first international action in four years. Another back row change in the second half saw the fit again Schalk Burger get back into the Test arena.
Du Plessis bagged a second try after the break and his front row colleague Tendai Mtawaria that at leastgave the 36,000 crowd something to shout about.
Scorers: South Africa: Tries: B du Plessis 2, F Steyn, T Mtawarira Cons: F Steyn.