Sinead Moodliar, 19, a philosophy student at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, was on holiday over the Christmas period last year.
She went to see the sun rise at Umhlanaga Rocks, a beach area near Durban, on Boxing Day when she was involved in a "catastrophic accident", a hearing in Huntingdon was told on Monday.
Cambridgeshire's senior coroner David Heming said: "This is a tragic, catastrophic accident.
"Sinead had gone to a beach area to witness the sunrise.
"While standing on a rocky area, a powerful wave washed her into the sea."
People on the beach reported hearing screams at 5.15am.
Miss Moodliar was dragged from the water by lifeguards and paramedics resuscitated her, but she died in hospital on December 27.
The inquest was attended by her parents Bob and Noeleen Moodliar, of Wilburton near Ely.
Mr Moodliar said he spoke to his daughter while she was in a restaurant on Christmas Day and she "seemed well and bubbly", and she later went to the beach.
He said he took a flight from the UK to South Africa as soon as he heard his daughter was involved in an accident, but she died before he could arrive.
Mr Moodliar said his daughter had been standing on a rock when the wave took her.
"She was just allowing the sea to wash over her feet when this happened," he said.
"One wave came and engulfed her and the backwash took her into the sea."
He said that a witness reported seeing his daughter struggling 35 metres out when another wave took her.
He said lifeguards were due to start their shift at 6am but had arrived early as they were expecting large numbers of people on Boxing Day, so were able to rescue his daughter.
"Christmas and Boxing Day, lots of people sleep on the beach even as its their summer so 5am is quite bright," he said.
He said the lifeguards would not have allowed anyone in the sea as it was "so rough".
Coroner Mr Heming, examining a photograph of the sea on another occasion, said: "The swell on that is truly frightening."
He said the "ferocious turbulence of the sea" washed Miss Moodliar from the rock.
A post-mortem examination, conducted in Durban, recorded Miss Moodliar's medical cause of death as complications following near drowning.
It noted a head injury consistent with striking a rock as she fell, and lung damage.
Mr Heming, extending his condolences to the family, said: "These are unforeseen incidents that nobody ever caters for."
He recorded a conclusion of accidental death.
Father-of-three Mr Moodliar, who operates a franchise of Subway restaurants, said after the inquest: "We absolutely miss our daughter.
"We cannot come to terms with the fact she's no longer here."
He said the family feel as if she is still on holiday.