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Why do We Need a Constitution?


The South African example is a good way to understand why we need a constitution and what do constitutions do. The oppressor and the oppressed in this new democracy were planning to live together as equals. It was not going to be easy for them to trust each other. They had their fears. They wanted to safeguard their interests. The black majority was keen to ensure that the democratic principle of majority rule was not compromised. They wanted substantial social and economic rights. The white minority was keen to protect its privileges and property.

After long negotiations both parties agreed to a compromise. The whites agreed to the principle of majority rule and that of one-person one vote. They also agreed to accept some basic rights for the poor and the workers. The blacks agreed that majority rule would not be absolute. They agreed that the majority would not take away the property of the white minority. This compromise was not easy. How was this compromise going to be implemented?

Even if they managed to trust each other, what was the guarantee that this trust will not be broken in future? The only way to build and maintain trust in such a situation is to write down some rules of the game that everyone would abide by. These rules lay down how the rulers are to be chosen in future. These rules also determine what the elected governments are empowered to do and what they cannot do. Finally these rules decide the rights of the citizen. These rules will work only if the winner cannot change them very easily. This is what the South Africans did. They agreed on some basic rules. They also agreed that these rules will be supreme, that no government will be able to ignore these. This set of basic rules is called a constitution. Constitution making is not unique to South Africa. Every country has diverse groups of people. Their relationship may not have been as bad as that between the whites and the blacks in South Africa. But all over the world people have differences of opinion and interests. Whether democratic or not, most countries in the world, need to have these basic rules. This applies not just to governments. Any association needs to have its constitution. It could be a club, a cooperative society or a political party all need a constitution.


Thus, the constitution of a country is a set of written rules that are accepted by all people living together in a country. Constitution is the supreme law that determines the relationship among people living in a territory (called citizens) and also the relationship between the people and government. A constitution does many things: 

First, it generates a degree of trust and coordination that is necessary for different kind of people to live together; Second, it specifies how the government will be constituted, who will have power to take which decisions; Third, it lays down limits on the powers of the government and tells us what the rights of the citizens are; and Fourth, it expresses the aspirations of the people about creating a good society.

All countries that have constitutions are not necessarily democratic. But all countries that are democratic will have constitutions. After the War of Independence against Great Britain, the Americans gave themselves a constitution. After the Revolution, the French people approved a democratic constitution. Since then it has become a practice in all democracies to have a written constitution.


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