Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What is a Constitution



Following is an essay I wrote during the beginning of the constitutional reform process in Zimbabwe in 2010 - which was printed in local independent media, though ignored by the state-controlled press. Needless to say, it applies to any country at any time.



“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

With these brief words, a group of men in the New World colonies of New England, set in motion a chain of events that have continued to impact on lives around the world down to this day.

What the American founding fathers did was to create a contract between the government and the people. In that agreement, the people agreed to grant certain powers and authorities to the government, and in return, the government agreed to provide certain services and protections. This was not a document set in stone, meant to be permanent and unchangeable. That is evident by the fact that in over 200 years it has been amended more than 20 times, each time making it better. For instance, the original Constitution classified persons of African origin as 3/5th of a person; basically, not an adult person, not even a real person. This was amended with the 14th Amendment which gave blacks the right to vote. It might be noted, however, that women in the United States did not get this right until the 1920s.

What this points out is that writing and adopting a Constitution is not the culmination of a process, but the beginning. It is a document that seeks to reconcile the interests of diverse individuals and groups within a society; often imperfectly, but to at least reach a point at which all stakeholders agree that it is a compact that they can live with.

Does it matter who writes a Constitution? The answer to that question is: it depends upon the unique circumstances of the society in which it is written. In the case of a society in which some groups have been historically left out of the political dialogue, it is perhaps wise to include at least representatives of such groups in the process, to begin the process of integration. In the end, though, what matters is that the Constitution takes them into consideration and provides protection for their rights.

In the final analysis, what is most important is that the Constitution be a contract that all stakeholders can agree on. It doesn’t matter who builds the car as long as it runs and you can ride in it.
Another aspect of the constitutional process, and one that seems sometimes to get lost in all the debate, is the commitment to honor and obey it. The most finely crafted Constitution, if government and the people ignore it, is just a worthless piece of paper.