Coetzee was born in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa, on March 24, 1929. His family had been farming in the Colesberg district but later were forced to move and seek an income in the rich mining economy of the Witwatersrand shortly before Christo Coetzee's birth.
Christo Coetzee's father developed lung problems. He had a disease colloquially called miners' phthisis and moved to the building industry, where his talents for drawing became apparent. Coetzee later attributed his artistic talents to his father and his business ones to his mother.
Coetzee's father died when he was 10 years old, in 1939. Christo Coetzee was raised by his mother and two elder sisters, Gertruida, 20 years his senior, and Johanna, 16 years older.