Cécile Kashetu Kyenge is the first black minister elected into the Italian government. This makes Kyenge the first person who was born in the Congo to ever rise to a high-level position in Italian politics. She served as the Minister of Integration between 2013-2014, and now serves as a member of the European Parliament.
Although Kyenge’s election shows that Italians are becoming friendlier towards multiculturalism, her tenure has not been without immense struggle and racially-motivated attacks against her. One incident that received a great deal of media coverage involved a man who threw bananas at Minister Kyenge at a rally. This took place in 2013 in Cervia where the Minister was holding a rally for supporters. Police were unable to catch the man.
At another event, the far-right group Forza Nuova (“New Force”) put painted mannequins with the words “immigration kills” and placed them at the Cervia site where Kyenge was holding her event before it took place.
Unfortunately for Minister Kyenge, she entered Italian politics during a time in which many are not very hospitable for multicultural values. Not only is Italy facing its highest unemployment rates in years–currently around 12.3 percent–but youth unemployment is at an all-time high, currently at 44.2 percent. A rise in economic woes, as we have seen in the past, generally coincides with a rise in nationalism.
Indeed, in a 2008 survey, Italian citizens were asked to rate their dislike of different groups. Well over half of those surveyed had unfavorable views of several cultural groups, including Romanians, Gypsies, Albanians, and Arabs. The fact that Italy’s economy has lost 15 percent of its manufacturing sector only adds attraction to the anti-immigration arguments of extreme right-wing groups.
Also, Kyenge’s policies, along with her foreign-born identity, does not help dampen the flames of nationalism. Kyenge’s major policies have always been aimed towards helping immigrants get into Italy. Kyenge started her career in politics as the founder of DAWA, an intercultural association that focused on increasing dialogue between Italians and Africans. She has been a firm supporter of the Jus soli law to make immigrant children born in Italy legal Italians.
Kyenge was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1964 and came to Italy to study medicine in 1983. Her first job, after studying surgery at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, was as an ophthalmologist. She married an Italian engineer in 1994, and they have two children. She currently resides in Castelfranco Emilia, which is a commune close to Bologna.
The main principle Kyenge wants to promote in Italy is the value of cultural exchange and sharing. But whether or not the Italian public will support her immigration policies wholeheartedly, only time will tell.