Sowing the seeds of food sovereignty or cultivating consent? The potential and limitations of Johannesburg’s community gardens.
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This thesis investigates the benefits and challenges of participating in community gardens in Johannesburg. More specifically, it seeks to understand whether and how urban community gardens contribute to food sovereignty, with the aim of identifying ways to enhance their contribution. For this research, six components of food sovereignty were considered: 1) access to sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food; 2) sustainable livelihoods and local economies; 3) environmental sustainability; 4) food system localisation; 4) empowerment and food system democratisation; and 6) gender equality. This research adopts a constructivist approach and a comparative case study method. In addition to an extended period of participant observation, the research utilises a unique array of research instruments adapted from various disciplines, including key informant interviews, an informal survey of community gardens in Johannesburg, a food diary exercise, food/life history interviews and semi-structured interviews with garden participants. The thesis finds that the community gardens do contribute to food sovereignty, though their contribution to the six elements is uneven and faces many obstacles. Some of the more unique challenges identified by this research include: 1) the role of culture and worldviews; 2) the restrictive impact of the neoliberal rationality underpinning support for the gardens—whether from government, non-governmental organisations or the private sector; and 3) conflicts and a climate of suspicion amongst gardeners which inhibit knowledge sharing, development of critical consciousness and social mobilisation. This research represents a contribution to both the urban agriculture (UA) and food sovereignty scholarship. Applying the food sovereignty framework to community food gardens in Johannesburg enables a more multidimensional and multi-scalar analysis of the gardens than previously found in South African literature on UA. At the same time, this research highlights a number of unexplored issues within the food sovereignty literature, such as: the challenge of defining ‘culturally appropriate’ food; the potential contradictions between culturally appropriate foods, sustainable livelihoods and agroecological production methods; and the role of race and gender inequality. This approach also revealed that the material benefits of UA (e.g., food security, income) are limited by the context of marginalisation, while its transformative potential can only be realised if support for UA has transformation as a principal objective.