File photo: President Jacob Zuma. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma was shocked and saddened by the deaths of 26 people in a collision between a train and truck in Mpumalanga, he said on Friday.

“On behalf of government and the people of South Africa, we would like to extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved families and wish a speedy recovery to all those who were injured,” Zuma said in a statement.

He said most of those killed were probably family breadwinners.

“We reiterate that it is important for drivers to exercise maximum caution at all times, especially when transporting passengers.”

Zuma urged law enforcers to thoroughly investigate and to take the appropriate action if they found any wrongdoing.

Netcare 911 spokesman Jeffrey Wicks said the truck was carrying farm workers when it collided with the train at a level crossing on the N4 between Malelane and Hectorspruit at 7am.

Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba was also deeply saddened at the crash and sent his condolences to the families of those killed, said his spokesman Mayihlone Tshwete.

Gigaba believed the incident illustrated the dangers of irresponsible driving, which allegedly caused the crash, he said.

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 had 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 wished the injured a speedy recovery.

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, he said.

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.

Congress of SA Trade Unions spokesman 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 200m, leaving bodies with limbs missing scattered on the ground.

“No injuries to the train crew or damage to the train or 1/8railway 3/8 infrastructure were registered,” he said.

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.

“One death is one too many. Our prayers and thoughts are with the families of the farm workers,” said Cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi.

Democratic Alliance 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