A dumbfounded Els, playing before his native fans in Mpumalanga, had protected his overnight lead before he twice hit his ball into the water at the 18th hole when even a bogey would have given him his fourth career title at this tournament.
"I really didn't know what was happening at the end," said the 37-year-old Bickerton, who was in the clubhouse and did not see Els' astonishing collapse. "I was packing up my things. To be honest, I was in shock."
Els was trying to become the fourth player, with Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros, to win the same European Tour event -- excluding the majors and World Golf Championships -- at least four times.
Bickerton (68) finished with a total of 13-under 275, one-stroke better than Els and fellow Englishman Lee Slattery (71).