The death toll following a collision between a train and truck in Mpumalanga on Friday morning had reached 26 by late afternoon, the department of public enterprise said.
"The minister is deeply saddened by what transpired at 7am this morning," said Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba's spokesperson, Mayihlone Tshwete.
Gigaba sent his condolences to the families of those killed.
Netcare 911 spokesperson Jeffrey Wicks said the truck was carrying farm workers on the N4 when it collided with the train at a level crossing between Malelane and Hectorspruit.
Tshwete said Gigaba believed the incident illustrated the dangers of irresponsible driving, which allegedly caused the crash.
Gigaba and Transnet officials had visited the scene and were satisfied that all level crossing safety measures were in place at the time of the crash.
Clear signals were in place and the train driver "even hooted to let the [truck] driver know that he was approaching".
There was no indication of negligence on the part of the train driver, Tshwete said.
"Officials and those who saw [the] accident are deeply affected by what happened."
Gigaba urged law enforcement agencies to address the root cause of the crash, Tshwete said.
He said the farmer should be questioned if he were responsible for transporting the workers, as it appeared that "a number of laws were broken in this regard".
The farmer and the truck driver should share responsibility for the tragedy.
Colonel Leonard Hlathi said the truck driver had been detained and would face murder charges in the Tonga Magistrate's Court on Monday.
Transport Minister Ben Martins extended his condolences to the friends and family of those who were killed and wished the injured a speedy recovery.
"We are deeply saddened by this terrible occurrence that has claimed so many lives," he said.
The department was gravely concerned about fatal crashes at rail crossings, which was why some crossings were now being monitored via closed circuit television cameras.
The Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) and the Road Accident Fund (RAF) were assisting investigations into the cause of the crash.
The RAF would also help the bereaved families and the injured with injury claim and funeral arrangement assessments.
Authorities would investigate all of the possible causes of the crash.
"We urge motorists, pedestrians and train drivers alike to exercise extreme caution at all times at these crossings," said Martins.
Poor labour practices
Congress of South African Trade Unions spokesperson Patrick Craven said the accident was an example of poor labour practices.
"This terrible tragedy exposes once again the scandal of workers being transported in open trucks.
"In a country where drivers and passengers of cars are legally obliged to wear seatbelts, how can we tolerate workers being transported with absolutely no protection in the event of an accident?" he asked.
He called for a full inquiry into the cause of the accident.
Transnet tweeted that the truck had been carrying 44 passengers.
"We would like to extend our sincere sympathies and condolences to the families of those whose lives were lost and a speedy recovery to the injured," it said.
Provincial community safety department spokesman Joseph Mabuza said the train dragged the truck for about 200 metres, leaving bodies with limbs missing scattered on the ground.
"No injuries to the train crew or damage to the train or [railway] infrastructure were registered," he said.
Condolences pour in
The RSR said the train was carrying coal from Witbank to Maputo.
Safety inspectors were at the scene.
Condolences poured in for the families of the crash victims.
Cabinet spokesperson Jimmy Manyi expressed sadness at the accident.
"One death is one too many. Our prayers and thoughts are with the families of the farm workers."
The Democratic Alliance wished the injured a speedy recovery. Spokesman Mmusi Maimane said efforts should be redoubled to increase safety at level crossings.
"My colleague in Mpumalanga, DA provincial leader Anthony Benadie, will be taking this matter up in the provincial legislature. Incidents like these should not be happening in South Africa," he said. – Sapa