Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who came to Howard University yesterday to be congratulated yet again for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, is a master not only of peace but of pauses.

Speaking to an overflowing crowd at the university auditorium, Tutu talked about his lack of a vote. "I cannot vote -- a right most of you . . . exercised yesterday," he said, pausing dramatically before the word "exercised," and raising his eyebrows above his gold-rimmed glasses.

The ceremony, filled with praise and references to Tutu as a Gandhi and a King, marked the opening of the annual convocation of the university's Divinity School. Tutu, 53, an Anglican, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters, with university president James E. Cheek telling him before the applauding crowd: "Your achievements have sounded the death knell of apartheid. And though the final gong of this destroyer of human dignity may not come tomorrow or next year, by God's decree it will come."

Tutu, the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, is a short and stocky man. His eyes radiated with laughter and sadness as he talked in clear, melodic tones. Wearing academic robes over a brown suit and sweater, he addressed more than 2,700 people. When the university choir sang, Tutu turned to watch them and raised his hands above his head, clapping enthusiastically.

The Nobel laureate attacked the Reagan administration, which has called its policy toward the South Africa government "constructive engagement."

First he spoke of life under apartheid -- how wives are becoming squatters to be near their husbands' work camps and how one child told him that his family was drinking water to fill up their stomachs. Then Tutu explained, "It is such a system as this that those who invest in South Africa, whether they like it or not . . . support and buttress. That is the system with which the Reagan administration has collaborated, helping the white minority South African government to grow intrinsically intransigent. I am fearful for the next four years."

Frequently foreign dignitaries, whose lives are tied to political and social change in the Third World, use Howard as a forum for those ideas. Tutu's celebration was contemplative and joyful, compared to the electric greeting given four years ago to Robert Mugabe, the prime minister of Zimbabwe.

Tutu used history and humor to describe apartheid.

"It is to be equated with those other examples of man's inhumanity to man, Nazism and communism. Apartheid, like Nazism, has brought a physical attribute, in this instance skin color, to an unwarranted status that determines where you are born, where you live," he said. "What does the color of one's skin tell us about your worth as a human being? Suppose instead of skin color we were to use nose size. Instead of signs in the rest rooms that reading whites only, they would read large noses only? If you had a small nose, you would be in trouble trying to answer the call of nature. Or to have not white-only universities as is the case now but universities for large noses only. So if you were afflicted with a small nose, you would have to apply for special permission to attend the large noses-only university from the minister of small nose affairs."

Later at a press conference, he talked again about the American elections. He laughed, saying he had to remember he was a guest in this country. Tutu is currently a visitng professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York, where he was when he learned about the Nobel Peace Prize, which will be conferred next month.

"Constructive engagement is an unmitigated disaster for blacks. I have no reason to revise that view. If that policy is continued, the government will increase its repressiveness. It is going to be more intransigent, because it has someone in the White House apparently who doesn't want to take it as seriously as Poland or Latin America," said Tutu.

He said the recent abstention by the United States in a vote by the U.N. Security Council to condemn South Africa indicated to black South Africans that the United States thought they were "expendable."

Asked if the Nobel Prize would temper his outspokenness, he said, slightly puzzled, "Of course not. I have not become more strident in my criticism as some people say. I think people have been paying slightly more attention to what I have been saying.