di Davide Marchetta
Rome, May 3 - Italy's first black minister said Friday she was proud to be black after several slurs against her from a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League and anonymous racists. "I'm black and Italo-Congolese and I want to underline that," Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge said at her first press conference since being sworn in last weekend. "I'm not coloured, I'm black, and I say that with pride," said the 48-year-old doctor. An online petition was launched Thursday to oust Northern League member Mario Borghezio from the European Parliament, or at least sanction him, following racist comments he made about Kyenge. Borghezio called Enrico Letta's new executive a "bonga bonga government" and claimed Kyenge would seek to "impose her tribal traditions from the Congo". Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has risen through the ranks of Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) since she came to Italy in 1983. Another woman cabinet member, former Olympic kayak champion and Sports Minister Josefa Idem, on Wednesday called for the police to take action on several racist slurs against Kyenge including Borghezio's and a slogan daubed on a Padua high school. Kyenge graduated in medicine from Rome's Sacred Heart Medical University, specialized in ophthalmology at the University of Modena and now lives in the northern town of Castelfranco dell'Emilia. She was elected to the Modena city council in 2004 for the Democratic Left (DS), the PD's predecessor, and later became the provincial councillor for the International Cooperation Forum for Immigration. In 2010, Kyenge accepted the post as the national spokesperson for the association Primo Marzo promoting immigrant and human rights and has long worked with the national authority responsible for drug regulation in Italy, AIFA, to promote pharmaceutical regulation in the Republic of Congo. She became the only black member of parliament for the PD when elected last February. Kyenge's appointment has been hailed as a breakthrough across the political spectrum and greeted warmly by Italian society and the sports world where black athletes have been making an increasing mark. Italy's national soccer team coach Cesare Prandelli applauded Kyenge's appointment, saying that Letta's choice represented "the future" of the country. "In my opinion, this is an opportunity to understand a different way of seeing things. It will help open minds and encourage people to listen," Prandelli said. Prandelli has been vocal in the fight against racism in the world of soccer and has stepped up to defend players like Italian-Ghanaian striker Mario Balotelli who has been subjected to racist abuse on and off the field. Kyenge, along with Moroccan-born PD MP Khalid Chaouki, PD MP Roberto Speranza and ex-PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, have proposed a change to the country's current citizenship law which dictates that only the children of Italian citizens can automatically become citizens themselves, while those born on Italian soil to non-Italian parents become eligible on their 18th birthday. A famous example is Balotelli, one of Italy's biggest soccer stars and a forward on the national team, who was born in Italy to parents from Ghana. "The appointment of Cecile Kyenge is a huge step forward towards a more civil Italian society, more responsible and aware of the need for better and definitive integration," Balotelli said on Saturday after Kyenge's swearing-in. The new law was part of Bersani's eight-point program proposed as the basis for a PD-led government that he tried, but failed, to form. It calls for Italian citizenship to children born in Italy of foreign parents. Kyenge has been a victim of racist abuse by other Northern League members who posted insults on Facebook and also in daily life, including an incident when she was shooed out of a shop being called 'blackie'. "We must treasure the desire for new Italians and the nomination of Kyenge is a concept that turns barriers into hope. A community based on integration is built in the halls of schools and universities," Premier Letta said at her swearing-in.