Culture: A Lock On Love, Or Secure In Your Relationship

February 13, 2015



Love locks have arrived in South Africa.  We’re not talking chastity belts here – those went out of fashion about 600 years ago – but the brassy symbols of inseparable devotion that are sprouting on bridges like mushrooms in a damp forest.

Love locks are padlocks, cheap or fancy depending on budget (or depth of feeling, perhaps), that are fixed to a convenient railing by besotted couples as a pledge of undying love.  The key is thrown into the dark waters to symbolise an unbreakable bond (divorce requires a pair of bolt cutters).  Sometimes the initials of the sweethearts are engraved on the face of the lock in jewellery script, sometimes they are merely inscribed with an indelible marker.  Impromptu lovers must rely on rust.

Love locks, a blight on bridges overseas for nearly a century, have only recently appeared in South Africa.  Photographer Paul Gilowey spotted a lone love lock at the Cape Town waterfront in July 2012.  They first appeared on the railing of Johannesburg’s Emmarentia dam in October 2013.  Since September 2014 Pretoria residents have enjoyed a dedicated love lock bridge at Huckleberry’s in Magnolia Dell.

Embryonic love locks at Emmarentia Dam, Johannesburg.

Embryonic love locks at Emmarentia Dam, Johannesburg.

Unfortunately for local padlock vendors, love locks have attracted only a modest following in South Africa so far.  There a few dozen love locks at Emmarentia and Huckleberry’s.  This pales next to the hundreds of thousands of locks that adorn the railings of Paris’s bridges: the Pont des Arts, Pont de l’Archevêché, and the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor (previously Pont de Solférino).  There are so many locks it’s hard to find an opening.  Locks are sometimes attached to other locks, a sort of unwitting partie carrée.  The weight of the locks on the Pont des Arts caused part of the railing to collapse in June 2014 and authorities have since replaced the railings with glass panels.

In some places love locks have become a small industry.  On Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor – the pedestrian bridge that joins the gardens of the Louvre with the south bank of the Seine – a hawker’s table has an array of padlocks available for sweethearts who arrive unprepared.  Another sells koki pens.  And charming con artists prey on unsuspecting lovers.

Love locks on the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, a bridge over Paris's River Seine.

Love locks on the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, a bridge over Paris’s River Seine.

Love locks, it must be said, are not as popular with civic authorities as they are with young lovers.  In Florence the thousands of love locks that adorned the Ponte Vecchio bridge were removed by the city council on the grounds that they looked tacky and scratched the metalwork of the bridge.  The New York and Dublin city authorities are dead against love locks and remove them whenever they appear.  But in Germany plans to remove love locks were abandoned in the face of public protests, and in Montevideo they are actively encouraged as a tourist attraction.  In Moscow purpose-built iron trees have been constructed in the centre of a bridge across the Vodootvodny Canal for the convenience of romantic couples wanting to lock their hearts together for eternity – or at least until rust do them part.  Paris’s bridges are periodically purged of locks but they soon reappear – although glass balustrades might finally end the tradition.  

Love locks will probably enjoy an untroubled eternity in South Africa – authorities that don’t replace street light bulbs are unlikely to get around to removing stray padlocks.  In fact, scrap metal collectors, those enterprising entrepreneurs who steal manhole covers and Eskom’s copper cables, no doubt pose a greater threat.  So if you feel like doing something different this Valentine’s why not take a stroll around Emmarentia Dam with your sweetheart and a stylishly engraved padlock. 

You might not be in Paris but you can still be romantic.