Friday, 5 May 2017

A journalist’s well kept secret.

A Tony Sabga Chronicle  
The first time that I set eyes on him, he was planting coconut trees on the Pigeon Point Beach with his wife Minerva. It was a Carnival Tuesday in Trinidad and Tobago circa 2003.
Walking along the beach with plants in his hand,  the venerable  Anthony Sabga, a man who was legendary especially among those who knew that his business empire was built on being grounded and street smart was normal like everyone else around him.
No drama, no fanfare, no visible bodyguards as he walked along a place that was clearly close to his heart as I later learnt. 
Dr Anthony Sabga
So when two masqueraders, covered in black oil and beating a paint pan for music and another with a wooden fork in his hand  surprised me demanding that I “Pay the devil”, I nodded in the direction of  Sabga.
‘Mr Sabga own this place, he have money,” I teased, at the same time pulling out the camera which was my constant  companion.
The old man, who was just about 50 feet away, did not flinch and may not have even batted an eyelid when he too was asked to pay the devil. He continued looking after the coconut  plant in his hand. Minerva did not seem alarmed either.
So, I took the photo of the devil taunting Tony Sabga with a wooden fork, knowing that I had a real Mirror exclusive.  That’s in addition to the stories about the coastal erosion at Pigeon Point and the concerns expressed by Tobagonians about how many permanent concrete structures were on the  strip of beach that was the frontline of the 60 acre property which he had acquired.
On the next edition of the T&T Mirror, the photo appeared with the caption, “Tony eh afraid Tobago Devil.”
A  couple  of days later , after the story was published Mirror Editor Keith Shepherd called in the midst of a hectic working day to explain that he received a phone call from Tony Sabga.
“Mr Shepherd, I know you are a fair man,” was the opening sentence in the conversation which Sheppy recalled fondly.
It had nothing to do with the newspaper poking fun with the photo that portrayed his encounter with a Tobago Devil.
Instead he wanted to give his side of the story about Pigeon Point at a time of deepening controversy over whether any beach in T&T should be private, 30-odd years after  the people took it back during the Black Power protests of the 70’s.
So in the haste of his work day, Sheppy told him that the reporter who did the story will follow up as he took the contact details.
 Shepherd later confessed to me that he regretted saying that as he would have loved to have a sit down with the old man, the owner of  Guardian Media Limited, face to face. I got a number to call Mrs Moonsammy, his  Secretary/Assistant to make the appointment.
Mrs Hazel Moonsammy

And then I kept the appointment, enthusiastically walking to the Ansa McAl building in downtown Port of Spain,  where his office was located. It is the same building  that was damaged by fire on two separate occasions earlier this year.
His was an open door policy, it appeared. A warm and friendly Mrs. Moonsammy greeted me and had me seated while I waited. It was more like the old man was sizing me up while there was distance between us, so he would know how to deal.
Usually restless, I did not remain seated. I stood up and walked to  a painting on the wall showing the original spot of the family business on Queen Street in Port of Spain, knowing that he was keeping an eye on me, even while he was taking with a couple of local guys (not businessmen) through the open door.
He was dressed in a dapper three piece suit. You could  see it was expensive. But everything about the man’s face spoke “ordinary.”  And that was reassuring. When I entered his office he  led  me to an area where we both sat comfortably on chairs with a coffee table between us . I was grateful for the respect. He did not choose to conduct the interview with him behind a desk and me in front.
On the coffee table were maps and plans, all about Pigeon Point.
And so he started to show his plan for  developing what he called the Pigeon Point Heritage Park  making it clear that he simply wanted to preserve the area, having already spent millions of dollars and considerable time and energy  dealing with coastal erosion.  They would  never  deny access to the fishermen who used the beach,  he said,  in the face of growing opposition to his plans for the beach front that included a large area of mangrove.
Pigeon Point Heritage Park

It was also an issue  that persons who wanted to use the beach facilities had to pay a fee and wear a wrist band; because no beach in Trinidad  and Tobago should be private.
Now, in hindsight, and based on the way the events unfolded thereafter, it was evident that he knew he would have to give up that treasured piece of  property.  In an off the record  response to a question, he destroyed one myth in my mind at the time by saying that  “government can frustrate anything, we don’t have that control.”  He was reading the signs well.
A  couple of years later the government declared it would acquire the property, even if by compulsory purchase order.
The information gleaned during my interview with Sabga was published the following week. Sadly I do not have access to the exact date of the  publication without access to to the valuable T&T Mirror archives.
But it was in the midst of the interview, which turned into a discussion, Mr Sabga said “You know you can’t quote me on this.”
 “I know”, I responded, nodding, grateful for just the opportunity to interview him .
 “You know I have my own newspaper,” he said, not arrogant but just matter of fact, because I think he was hoping that with the confidence I displayed in front of him that it was not lost on me that I was having an opportunity of a lifetime.
Indeed on a personal and professional level, I had one up on every Guardian journalist! and Express and Newsday too!!.For those at the Guardian, he would have been their boss so whenever they came into his presence the  level of relate would have been automatically different. I don’t know how the other journalists would have reacted if they had the opportunity.
Being a seasoned newswoman I clearly did not  blush or gush about it afterwards. It was a straight case of trading respect for respect. He respected our  weekly newspaper with a circulation far less than his behemoth The Guardian, whose editorial policy we often maligned and that said a lot.
He  could have easily used the pages of his newspaper to answer the questions that arose in our publication, as many others have done. But  it was clear that he also respected the power of the T&T Mirror’s editorial team and how far reaching we were at the time.
Tony Sabga, a  Trinbagonian Emeritus, seemed to have had everything in the world but he had to give up on that one dream at Pigeon Point.
He did not get his way with Pigeon Point and after spending considerable time and energy on his personal project he sold the peninsula property for TT$106 Million into the hands of the Tobago House of Assembly.
It was not the first time that the  people demanded  the right to public access on that beach.  
In the hey day of the Black Power movement in the 70’s the gate to the property was torn down by protestors  who demanded access to parts of the country that would have been the enclave of the rich and powerful.
Robert Amar got his hands on it  before Anthony Sabga created Club Pigeon Point  a division of his conglomerate the McAl Group of Companies and  controversy reared oftentimes, including one incident that led to the shooting death of a man, allegedly by security at the Pigeon Point Beach  Club.  It was against the backdrop of this controversy that he realized he  should set the records straight.
 That was the last time the property was in private hands. More than twelve years ago it fell into the hands of the THA and what have they done? Nothing short of a  watered down version of Sabga’s vision for the cherished spot. Years later and the grandiose plans have not materialized.
 Why write this?  In all fairness to the giant of a man who passed away at the age of 94 years, on  May 3rd 2017. It’s not kiss and tell, but a small insight, a drop in the bucket to help us all better understand the iconic businessman whose family fled Syria in 1930 and  came to Trinidad where through the dint of hard work they laid the cornerstone for the Sabga Empire.

               



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