Australia lost the toss but won the opening session of the first Test, reducing South Africa to 4-78 on Thursday at the WACA.
Skipper Faf du Plessis was 37 not out at the meal break on day one, having dug in with Temba Bavuma after a woeful opening hour from the tourists.
The Proteas were 4-32 when drinks were called following JP Duminy's dismissal, which came after opener Stephen Cook and talented first drop Hashim Amla were out edging for ducks. Not since England were 2-4 in 1998 has a side started a WACA Test so poorly.
Dean Elgar, who recorded a pair on Test debut at the ground in 2012, continued the slump in the eighth over when he was caught behind off the bowling of Josh Hazlewood.
It's been 10 years since South Africa had lost three or more wickets in the opening 10 overs of a Test.
"I know it's only the first session but this is how you set the tone for the whole summer," former skipper Michael Clarke said in the Nine Network commentary box.
It could have been even worse for the tourists, who offered half-chances at 2-17 and 3-20.
Hazlewood was the pick of Australia's bowlers, having claimed the prized scalp of Amla with an excellent delivery that nipped off the deck, found the edge and carried to Steve Smith at second slip.
Mitchell Starc struck with the fourth ball of the day, with Mitch Marsh snaffling a remarkable catch at gully to remove Cook.
Duminy unsuccessfully reviewed his caught-behind decision. Third umpire Richard Kettleborough took a long time before deciding there wasn't enough evidence to overturn Nigel Llong's verdict.
The ball appeared to scrape both thigh pad and bat but Duminy immediately referred the decision.
Du Plessis, who boasts a great record against Australia including his defiant ton on debut at Adelaide Oval in 2012, steadied in an unbeaten 46-run stand with Bavuma.
Smith admitted at the toss he was also keen to bat first.