The legitimacy of legal authorities – particularly the police – is central to the state's ability to function in a normatively justifiable and effective manner. Studies, mostly conducted in the US and UK, regularly find that procedural justice is the most important antecedent of police legitimacy, with judgments about other aspects of police behavior – notably, about effectiveness – appearing less relevant. But this idea has received only sporadic testing in less cohesive societies where social order is more tenuous, resources to sustain it scarcer, and the position of the police is less secure. This paper considers whether the link between process fairness and legitimacy holds in the challenging context of present day South Africa. In a high crime and socially divided society, do people still emphasize procedural fairness or are they more interested in instrumental effectiveness? How is the legitimacy of the police influenced by the wider problems faced by the South African state? We find procedural fairness judgments play a key role, but also that South Africans place greater emphasis on police effectiveness (and concerns about crime). Police legitimacy is, furthermore, associated with citizens' judgments about the wider success and trustworthiness of the state.