Racial slurs and sexual innuendo, including offensive comments about black penises and underwear, are some of the latest accusations to emerge against Mark Coetzee (pictured), the suspended executive director and chief curator of Cape Town’s state-of-the-art Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz Mocaa).
The trustees of the internationally celebrated museum at the V&A Waterfront suspended Coetzee last month, citing professional misconduct. It is believed this was a result of evidence produced at a meeting that revealed his abusive behaviour towards young curatorial staff members. Coetzee resigned as a result. Staff who lodged the complaints were allegedly asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, making any details of the growing scandal difficult to obtain.
But numerous well-placed sources, who do not want to be named, have confirmed they were witness to Coetzee’s behaviour in the workplace, some at the museum in question.
Several apparent patterns have emerged from the accounts given by sources, both men and women, though his sexual harassment appears to have been directed at men. Women have previously told City Press about being body shamed by the famous curator.
Coetzee, it is alleged, was particularly hurtful when wondering about the size of black men’s penises.
Another favourite theme of Coetzee’s, claim sources across the art world, relates to his openly asking men what kind of underwear they were wearing.
Christine Eyene, a well-known Cameroonian curator, confirmed in an article written on her website that she suffered constant undermining and abuse while she worked with Coetzee in 2009, and claims there was “one openly racial comment”.
Other sources have confirmed that Coetzee made overtly racist comments in the work environment. One confirmed comment was that he stated in a meeting that he was not to able to tell the difference between black people. Coetzee did not respond to City Press’ queries this week.
Since his resignation, the media has met a concrete wall of resistance from the mostly European trustees.
Asked for comment this week, they responded: “We have instigated a process under labour law against Mr Coetzee, which is ongoing. During this process, we are prohibited from commenting in detail.”
Exactly what this process entails remains a mystery. The trustees have previously told City Press that, “at this stage, there are no indications of a criminal inquiry”.
The trustees say he is currently serving out his notice and, as such, is still an employee of the museum, hence the labour process.
Cape Town-based labour law expert David Woolfrey said: “Employees can be disciplined in their notice period. And even dismissed.”
But he pointed out that, “regardless of whether they are pursuing a process, they are refusing to confirm or deny that employees have been required to sign nondisclosure agreements”.
Woolfrey expressed the view that there was a “fairly high probability” that such agreements “would not be enforceable in the circumstances”, and would “almost certainly not preclude the employees from pursuing legal remedies”. Woolfrey urged the young curators, if they had indeed signed these agreements, to obtain legal advice about where they stood.
The grand museum is known for its shroud of silence. Coetzee and the trustees have previously refused to respond to questions about the museum’s curatorial practices and its finances.
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