Sinead Moodliar, 19, who was studying philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, was on holiday when the "catastrophic accident" struck, the hearing was told.
She had gone on Boxing Day morning to watch the sunrise at Umhlanaga Rocks, a beach area near Durban.
Her father, Bob Moodliar, said she was "just allowing the sea to wash over her feet" when "one wave came and engulfed her and the backwash took her into the sea".
People reported hearing screams at 5.15am, as lifeguards and paramedics jumped into the water to try and save her.
Mr Moodliar said one witness reported seeing his daughter struggling 35m from the shore when another wave took her.
Lifeguards were due to start their shift at 6am but had arrived early as they were expecting large numbers of people on Boxing Day, he added.
They did manage to reach Miss Moodliar, but she died later in hospital - before either of her parents could fly out to South Africa.
"Christmas and Boxing Day, lots of people sleep on the beach even as it's their summer so 5am is quite bright," Mr Moodliar said.
He recalled her sounding "well and bubbly" when he spoke to her while she was in a restaurant on Christmas Day.
Examining a photograph of the sea on another occasion, Cambridgeshire's senior coroner David Heming remarked: "The swell on that is truly frightening".
He recorded a conclusion of accidental death.
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.
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.