AT 5'1" AND 94 LBS., SOUTH AFRICAN novelist Nadine Gordimer had to sit on a telephone book in her publisher's office to meet the press the day she got the happy news: She had just become the first South African ever to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Sipping champagne out of a paper cup in New York City, where she was promoting her new book, Jump and Other Stories, Gordimer, 67, was clearly delighted.

The author, who will share her $985,000 cash award with the mostly black Congress of South African Writers, has embraced the antiapartheid cause with increasing fervor during her 40-year career. Growing up in South Africa, the daughter of apolitical Jewish émigrés (her father was a watchmaker), she once wrote that "I lived among a variety of colors and kinds of people," an experience that "hardened into a sense of political opposition to abusive white power."

Yet there are no polemics in Gordimer's nine short-story collections and 10 novels, three of which have been banned at some point by the South African government. Rather, they are lyrical accounts of the delicate relationships among races and of the influence of segregation on her characters' lives. Says South African-born journalist Donald Woods: "The effect of her writing has been very considerable, in the same way that Solzhenitsyn's writing influenced our opinions about Russia."

Gordimer received restrained congratulations from President Frederik W. de Klerk but a more enthusiastic message from her friend and fellow Nobelist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who sent three kisses by transatlantic telephone when he heard the news. He says the prize is "a tremendous acknowledgment of an outstanding stalwart against injustice and oppression. And it couldn't have happened to a nicer person."