One witness told how he last saw his son alive, badly beaten, in a vehicle with President Nelson Mandela's ex-wife, while another said she was beaten by Madikizela-Mandela when she was three months' pregnant.
The week-long hearing on a total of 18 killings and other crimes allegedly involving Madikizela-Mandela's former bodyguard unit could determine her political future.
A nervous Phumile Dlamini said Madikizela-Mandela, who she referred to as Winnie, attacked her in a jealous rage in 1988 because Dlamini was pregnant by Madikizela-Mandela's lover at the time.
"Winnie started assaulting me with her fists," Dlamini said in halting Zulu through an interpreter. In a written statement that accompanied her testimony, she said Madikizela-Mandela "slapped me in the face and hit me with her fist all over my body and in my stomach."
A week later, Dlamini said, Madikizela-Mandela let her bodyguards beat her with fists and kicks for hours until one of Madikizela-Mandela's daughters halted the assault.
Now her 9-year-old son has learning and concentration problems that Dlamini said she attributes to the beatings when she was pregnant.
Another witness, Nicodemus Sono, said he last saw his son Lolo alive in 1988 in a van in which Madikizela-Mandela was riding. Lolo's face was puffy and Sono said he climbed in the van to ask for mercy.
"I started pleading with her, `Please, leave Lolo with me because he has already been beaten,' " Sono said.
But Madikizela-Mandela told Sono his son was a spy to be dealt with by the anti-apartheid movement, and the van drove away, Sono said. When he tried to find out later, he was rebuffed, he said.
"I went to see Mrs. Mandela and she said, `Lolo, we dropped him off somewhere.' And when I looked at her, I could see she didn't like my presence and me asking about Lolo," Sono said.
Madikizela-Mandela's lawyers repeatedly characterized the morning testimony as lies, drawing several admonishments from Truth Commission chairman Desmond Tutu to limit their remarks to questions of fact.
Wearing a blue and white suit with white sandals and three strands of pearls, Madikizela-Mandela hugged friends as she made her way through a horde of journalists into the hearing room Monday morning. Her two daughters with Mandela - Zinzi and Zenani - attended the session.
During the hearing scheduled to continue all week, Madikizela-Mandela will square off against bodyguards, police and former political allies who are her main accusers.
Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop, said this week's hearing was intended at finding the truth and not pillorying, ridiculing or humiliating anyone.
Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, created such havoc in the Soweto black township in the 1980s that former anti-apartheid allies turned against the woman once called the "mother of the nation."
For Madikizela-Mandela, the hearing is a chance to publicly confront dogged accusations and keep her public profile high before next month's national conference of the governing African National Congress.
As president of the ANC Women's League, she is running to become the party's deputy president - a post that could make her deputy president of the country after the 1999 national election.
Earlier this year, the Truth Commission questioned Madikizela-Mandela in private about charges made against her in amnesty applications of former close associates. She then requested a public hearing on the charges.
Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping in 1991 and sentenced to six years in jail in the case of four young men, including Stompie Seipei, who were beaten in her home.
Her sentence was reduced on appeal to a dlrs 3,200 fine. Seipei was later found dead and Jerry Richardson, her chief bodyguard, was convicted of the murder.
The Truth Commission can grant amnesty to people who make full confessions of political crimes. But because Madikizela-Mandela has not applied for amnesty, she could face criminal charges based on evidence uncovered by the panel.
Tutu said Monday that any evidence from this week's hearing against people who failed to apply for amnesty could be turned over to police.
The divorce between Mandela and his ex-wife occurred last year. She then added on her maiden name, Madikizela.